Tamara A. Small (Mount Allison University) has published work on online election campaigning in Party Politics and in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and about Internet regulation in Election Law Journal.
This weekend, I spent an afternoon with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. Seriously. No, he wasn’t campaigning in New Brunswick. He was in Regina. I spent the afternoon with the virtual Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals hosted online town hall on Saturday afternoon. If you followed Ignatieff on Twitter or are a friend on Facebook you received an invite.
For one hour, Ignatieff along with candidate Monica Lysack (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre) took questions on the "Liberal Family Pack." In total, Ignatieff answered about 24 questions on wide range of issues, including the Canada Health Act, same-sex marriage, childcare and post-secondary education. Questions were asked and answered in both official languages. Overall, it was a lively Q&A. The transcript of the event is posted on the Liberal Blog.
Ignatieff has participated in other online town halls in his terms as leader including the launch of the Liberal platform earlier in the campaign. Other leaders, too, have chatted with voters online. Stephen Harper participated in a YouTube chat in 2010. While during the English language debates, Green party leader Elizabeth May responded in real-time to the same questions asked of the other four leaders.
In the early years of the Internet, cyber-optimists thought the Internet would usher in a new age of democratic politics. It was argued that through the Internet, citizens could initiate, discuss, and vote on policy options. Representative democracy would be strengthened because politicians and citizens could directly communicate with one another.
This isn’t exactly what happened, however. Research concisely showed that election after election, two-way communication between voters and Canada’s party leaders was uncommon. Canadian politicians have tended to avoid online chat rooms on their websites, and sometimes even turned off commenting functions on blogs and Facebook pages. This isn't just a Canadian phenomenon either. Barack Obama aside, most American politicians don’t spend too much time engaging with citizens through the Internet. Digital politics has been very top-down.
While I am curious how many people actually participated in the Liberal town hall by either submitting questions or just as lurkers. Also I would really like to hear more about the how the questions were vetted. As the questions were all remarkably on-topic, focussed on policy not politics. This said, I do laud this use of the Internet. The use of online chats is a welcome addition to digital politics.