Political campaigns in the age of the Internet
Technology is now deeply interwoven into the fabric of elections. Electoral management bodies, political parties, civil society actors, observers and citizens are all relying on one digital technological tool or another to ensure effective conduct and participation in elections.
Political parties are beginning to understand that without investments in this area their quest to win or retain political power at elections may not be achievable. Given this background, political parties have begun to evolve mechanisms and systems to ensure they are able to effectively connect with their base as well as with prospective supporters.
The use of digital technologies by political parties can be segmented into five key areas; campaign events, fundraising, community management and mobilization, results management such transmission of from results from polling centers to collation center electronically and operational structure management.
Ways in which technology is used
Campaign events are an important for political parties since it is the key to reaching out and energizing their base. In recent times, there is an increase in the number of online and social media type events. For example, political parties are now holding Facebook live sessions which provide an opportunity for interacting effectively with citizens, via a question and answer section. Also, short videos and visualizations are now the order of the day, with thousands of contents generated and disseminated on social media and messaging platforms. In addition, political parties and candidates now have budgets to promote content on social media and websites which helps them reach a category of citizens, especially the youth, who heavily rely on digital content.
Fundraising is another of those important areas for political parties and candidates no matter their internal resources base. Using online and social media tools, political parties and candidates reach out to their supporters not only to solicit funds but also provide the mechanism for donations from other donors too. The main characteristics of digital fundraising is that it is more geared towards encouraging small contributions which when totaled become a significant source of campaign financing. A key success factor is to ensure, the creation and maintenance of a dynamic database of donors, the bigger the network the more potential donors can be reached. In Ghana, political actors do not make use of credit or debit card payment technologies but offer mobile money options to donors since most Ghanaians have mobile money wallets.
Grassroots mobilization is also key to political campaigns, because without community engagement political parties cannot call their base to action. To this end WhatsApp has become a- must-have tool. It allows for the creation of groups tasked with specific duties; for example, a youth WhatsApp group focusing on understanding young people’s needs or a party volunteers platform for easy brainstorming purposes. Parties are also investing in independent news websites, separate from their official sites, in order to push their agenda. Further, “serial callers”, that unique group of persons who are either volunteers or paid service providers, who daily phone in to hundreds of radio stations throughout the country are being cloned online. An emerging trend is for political parties to now invest in ‘digital foot soldiers”. These “digital foot soldiers” are on social media and WhatsApp creating and disseminating key messages and often serve as “attack dogs” against perceived opponents in the virtual space.
A fourth area where technology is playing a key role is in Management of political parties as institutions. This is a very complex venture, therefore most political parties are relying on Information Technology to manage their parties’ human resource, finance and administrative divisions.
Using new digital technologies for political campaigns are not without challenges. Among them; high costs of establishing the technology infrastructure, the collection of citizens’ personal data and data protection and privacy issues etc.
At citizens’ level, online and social media political party campaigns exacerbate inequalities in representation and voices due to for example a lack of internet connectivity in the rural areas, high costs of digital tools, low levels of digital and information literacy which impact effective participation in virtual political campaigns and the disparity in resources among political parties themselves
Another challenge to online political campaign is regulations or the lack of them. This means that the online space remains the wild wild West, with public disorder being the norm, including the spread of disinformation and misinformation among others.
In conclusion, albeit political campaigns online and via social media will not replace age old traditional ways of campaign anytime soon, digital political campaign is now an indispensable ally and those who are able to harness are better placed to win political power at elections.
The writer is a Technology Innovations Consultant