Real Politics Made Virtual

Geração Activa: A Political Campaign With Avatars If you take a look at the image to the left, you might imagine it’s the latest machinima for promoting something in Second Life®. After all, machinimas are getting better and better, and since virtual world sales (or shows; or events; or whatever) are definitely worth the expense to do a promotional video that looks awesome, you might be right.

However, you’d be probably quite surprised to figure out that this is just part of a real-life political campaign from Portugal’s Prime Minister, José Sócrates, for his re-election on September 27.

Just watch the trailer and notice the image at 0:14:

Intrigued? Well, you should be. The video doesn’t even look like a typical political campaign video. And that’s the whole point, really: welcome to politics in the 21st century.

Obama leads the way

Billions of articles have been written about the amazingly successful campaign that Barack Obama launched on the social media — besides real life — to get elected (well, he did get elected), so it’s pointless for me to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that two important aspects were, for the first time, put in place.

The first is that the old model of rallying around cities and giving large events is not working any more. People are lazy and distrust politicians. They have their own ideas and minds, and a higher education, when, say, compared to the 19th century. Travelling around cities to gather support might have worked on the pre-Information Age, but, except for Caledon and other steampunk enclaves in Second Life, the Victorian way of doing things is out of fashion.

During most of the 20th century, people actively involved in following politics just used the media to stay in touch. Newspapers first — where they read about the politicians’ ideas — and later on TV. Now, instead of patiently waiting for the “election train” to arrive at your home town to listen to the candidates, you just browse the traditional media and get informed that way. The focus slowly changed from “rallies” and “events” towards “good media presence”; having a good hairstyle and selecting a nice fit of suit or dress to look “right” on TV is way more important than charismatic oratory skills.

However, people are not watching TV these days to stay in touch with politics. Unless it’s scandals or corruption, most citizens couldn’t be bothered less with what politicians are thinking — so the media naturally focused on that. In fact, thanks to freedom of speech, which is pretty much universal in the western world, the only thing that the media are fond of publishing is the dirtiness of politics, which is the only thing that really matters to citizens — and the one that will sell the networks some more ads.

But there is always “too much of a good thing”. If all you hear and listen about politicians is scandals and corruption, that’s the image the citizens have of politicians: they’re just around to be, well, corrupt. And incompetent. And this is pretty much the idea that we have of them for the past 120 or 150 years; I’m always amused to read old novels from the late Victorian era when it was considered to be very bad form to become a politician; real aristocrats and gentlemen would never meddle with such a “dirty” job.

Things naturally changed.

Moving political campaigns to TV and other media had the advantage of reaching a much wider audience and allowing a huge impact very quickly, but it lost one important aspect: getting in touch with what the people really think. Information, in the pre-Information Age, is filtered. Politicians — and candidates — have to measure their impact on what the media says, and not what the people say. On the other side of the equation, the citizens don’t know what the politicians say and think; they only know what the media thinks about them. And since the media will only publish what will sell ads, they will only report what makes ads sell best. You guessed it: scandals, drama, corruption.

So the “wider audience” has created a rift between politicians and the citizens that are supposed to vote for them. Opinion-makers, “politicologists” (yes, really!), journalists, and other “experts” will act as a barrier between both: they will tell citizens what politicians think, and they will tell politicians what citizens think. Since you’re free to publicise your opinion, as a citizen, you can make the option of picking your favourite opinion-maker and follow what they’re saying. As a politician your task might be a bit harder: after all, all media compete for ad space, and since the audience is pretty much the same, what the media says about what the citizens are thinking is also rather similar.

It’s not surprising that by the end of the 20th century most politicians have completely lost their touch with their citizens; and, on the reverse side, citizens have absolutely no trust in their elected representatives. All the citizens know about is the bad side of politics. The good sides (if they exist at all) are negligible. Every politician is just like any other: they only think about themselves and how to extract more taxes from the population and more benefits for themselves and their party friends. Nobody’s different really, even if they swear to God they are — sooner or later, power will corrupt each and every one of them.

Now, I’m sure that this stereotypical description of most politicians will apply to many (probably to most!), but not all. The question is — as a citizen with a vote, how do you know? The information you get is always going to be filtered and spinned and manipulated and biased…

And while perhaps in the 19th century, at least on the smaller, local elections, you could just walk up to the candidate and ask them directly what they thought about things, this is harder and harder to do in this 21st century. Rallies and events are carefully monitored and controlled events. Sure, some politicians still walk directly to their citizens and talk to them without a barrier of spin doctors (Hillary, I’ve been told, used to drink informal tea with some of her voters, just to have an idea on what they were thinking). These events are not really very popular (but they should be!) since most people either don’t care, don’t have time, or simply don’t believe that Mr or Mrs Candidate will really talk to them in those events.

But if democracy is supposed to continue, healthy as before, politicians cannot get out of touch with their voters, and the citizens cannot be prevented to keep in touch with their elected representatives.

The Internet changed all that. Now politicians answer emails (I remember the first email I sent to the President of the United States, back in, uh, 1992 I guess — of course I got a “canned reply”, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was finally able to email them!). They have institutional websites. This means that at least you don’t need to wait a few weeks to get their political manifestos via regular mail — you can just point and click to their party’s website and read about what the politicians are thinking.

That step — eliminating the middleman in the exchange of information — was quite a revolution, but it wasn’t enough. After all, most of that information was not addressed to the individual voter, but more to the media in general. Institutional websites are tailored to give a specific message and rarely show what the politicians actually think, but what their campaign directors think they should say in public.

Enter the very dangerous world of social media.

Obama was the first candidate to go a further step at a very large scale: allowing regular citizens not only to give feedback — and that meant dealing with surprisingly angry and offensive replies! — but to help to create the rough guidelines of what his job as a President should be. It was a means to poll his audience, outside the institutionalised marketing companies that do market analysis on opinions. And, of course, it was an alternate channel to raise funds, too.

Perhaps not exactly foreseen (or perhaps it was!), many citizens spontaneously “helped” out the Obama campaign, unofficially. They set up their own websites, their blogs, their pages, to “help Obama get elected”. In Second Life, there was an official presence of the Obama campaign, with campaign directors who used SL regularly, organising things in-world. But hundreds spontaneously created their own in-world presences too, or organised debates, conferences, or simple viewings of Obama’s speeches — which were available on YouTube — and discussed them afterwards. These were not “officially sanctioned or organised”. But — that’s the beauty of it! — it meant that regular citizens, often not affiliated with either party, and often not even political at all, just participated spontaneously on the campaign, even if they might not be aware of it. And, as you know, this was not even restricted to Americans. There were some issues at some point when large groups of Europeans, for instance, also spontaneously started to discuss American politics and organised their own debates — allegedly (I have not confirmed this) some laws disallow non-Americans to participate directly or indirectly on a candidate’s campaign. We were all walking on thin ice, but, in general, things were tolerated to a degree. In a sense, I believe it’s an honour that the national election of a president in a country becomes a world-wide issue which also includes non-national citizens in the effort to elect a candidate — even if that effort is just information dissemination, raising awareness to the issues, or discussing what the candidate thinks.

The Japanese case of Kan Suzuki, a politician that moved to Second Life to launch his campaign there, avoiding the Web, because political campaigns in Japan are forbidden on digital media, was widely discussed two years ago. Getting candidates directly in touch with their voters via digital media is a “novelty” that, until very recently, did not look too good on a candidate’s resumée. All that changed with Obama. While he certainly didn’t neglect the “real world” counterpart, nevertheless, he took full advantage of the digital age to create a vast network of volunteers — oriented by his campaign team — to spread out his ideas, and gather feedback from them. Unfiltered, or as unfiltered as it’s possible to get in this age of increased “political correctness” control.

Granted, critics might comment that Obama would win no matter how much he used social media: after all, America was tired of the “Bush Republic” and would elect anyone but a Republican. That might be oversimplifying things, but it’s nevertheless a valid argument. Let’s see the Portuguese example by contrast.

Hated to the extreme

When José Sócrates became Prime Minister in March 2005, the country was a mess (which is not surprising; it always is 🙂 ). He got elected after the previous Prime Minister was kicked out of office by the former President — a prerrogative that Presidents have in Portugal. Since the return to democracy in 1974, just three Prime Ministers lasted more than one term in office (one with two terms of less of 2 years each, and not in succession; one was re-elected but just served half of the second term; and a third one actually lasted two and a half terms during 10 successive years, and is currently Portugal’s President). Re-electing a Prime Minister is a relatively rare occasion — most of the time, the Portuguese are fed up with their Government after less than a year, and try to get rid of it as quickly as possible (which more than often means creating so many strikes and protests and rallies against the Government that the President feels it’s best to give the citizens the chance to vote again). Cavaco Silva lasted ten years as PM mostly because he managed to channel European funds into a small Golden Age for Portugal with an incredible economic boom, a clever trick that assured his continued re-election; his successor, António Guterres, currently the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, mostly benefited from his predecessor’s astonishing economic boom to keep the citizens happy with his policy of “dialogue”, thus opposing his own politics to the energic style of ruling of Cavaco Silva, which became annoying to many. He was, however, unable to deal with the legacy of keeping the economy growing, or at least not making it worse. It’s fair to say that Portugal entered a financial crisis since the start of the millenium and never truly recovered from it.

So, a few years later, when Sócrates finally came to power, his priorities were to reduce the amount of expenses of the State and relaunch the economy, mostly with a very strong focus on technology (his party was always fond of information technology) and sustainability (he used to be the Minister for the Environment under the Guterres government). All went reasonably well until, of course, the world-wide financial crisis set in, and an already debilitated country showing just the first signs of recovery couldn’t handle an external crisis on top of all that. Naturally enough, everything collapsed, and Sócrates focused on “New Deal” policies instead — the textbook solution to deal with a financial crisis. With an election year in 2009, there was hardly enough time to see any real effects of this policy, and one could reasonably say that all carefully laid-out plans, whatever they were in 2005, were basically wasted, leaving just 10.5 million Portuguese quite furious with a Government that cannot work miracles, and demanding Sócrates’ head on a silver platter.

It’s quite hard to start a campaign within such a bad climate. In normal circumstances, Sócrates would have absolutely no hope to get re-elected: the Portuguese are absolutely unforgiving with their Governments and demand regular miracles all the time to keep their trust in their elected representatives (a trick that some politicians on local Town Halls have known to exploit; a few have been re-elected for over 30 years just by delivering miracles regularly). But he has a slight advantage: power struggles on the opposition rendered it weak and without a clear alternative. Still, any “regular” campaign would just be hypocrisy — nothing that he had promised in 2005 was done until 2009, and of course, the fact that there is still a world-wide crisis going on, doesn’t mean that the Portuguese voters will be slightly more forgiving. They won’t be forgiving at all.

Thus Sócrates, true to his principle that only better and more advanced technology will bring “miraculous” solutions, decided to hire Obama’s advisors and do a completely different style of campaign.

Sound bites of the 21st century

If you have seen one political campaign, you have seen them all — and Portugal is even less imaginative than most. For the two largest parties (who are so much alike that it’s hard to understand the differences), “ideology” is out of the picture, and has been so since 1985, so they fight around “ideas” (leaving “ideology” for the extreme left range of parties, which have no hope to ever be elected anyway). But there is a limit to what you can say. The current opposition is focusing on “telling the truth” and “not promising what they can’t do”, since they saw that lying to the Portuguese with false claims of future prosperity will never get them elected. Sócrates, in truth, might think exactly the same way — after all, nobody can predict the future, and even though his carefully laid out plan in 2005 might have worked if it weren’t for the 2008 financial crisis, the truth is, from the voters’ perspective, all he did was — lie.

But saying “we won’t lie any more since we don’t know what the future is” is not a good campaign motto — specially if you have two parties saying the same thing. An energic campaign full of promises will naturally be very suspect — after all, that’s what the Portuguese got, and now things are even worse than before (far worse, in fact). So what is left?

Obama’s advisors just gave the correct orientation: forget sound bites for the media. That’s less and less relevant these days. The media influences voters, but to go beyond the media, you have to engage the citizens — directly. And so Sócrates announced a “new model” of the campaign for 2009: one where only 10% of the people involved would actually be party members, and provide just the bare minimum of organisation. The remaining 90% would come from, well, regular, independent, and often apolitical volunteers. On the Internet. Spontaneously organising events, relaying messages through Twitter and Facebook, blogging on websites, doing all sorts of things on their own, and, generally speaking, spread the news around — without being part of the institutionalised news, or being officially part of the party.

And also raise more funds that way, of course.

Now, raising funds for political campaigns in Portugal has quite regulated limits. On the good side of things, all political parties get an amount of money from the State to do their campaigning (depending, of course, on how relevant the parties are, in terms of votes), and equal access to the media. This means that even the smallest parties with a handful of members can, at the very least, afford to print some pamphlets and post some signs and get a prime time slot on TV and radio. But there is an upper limit too — since the Portuguese, always mistrusting their politicians, don’t want too much to be spent on campaigning, but on the citizens. That means managing your money well. With the high costs for doing large-scale marketing, you can see where the problem is: the traditional methods of spreading your message country-wide, with signboards and events, quickly runs to that upper limit, and you have little idea on the efficiency of the money spent that way (a strategy used by the smaller parties is not to go for 100% coverage, but focus on the hottest spots where you might be visible by, say, 70% of the voters — enough to get them some votes and a handful of seats on the Republic’s Assembly, and also far more cost-effective than dealing with the remote locations where the remaining 30% of the citizens live).

Thus, perhaps even more so than in the US, pushing the campaign to the digital media is a very sound strategy. The costs are really negligible. If, on top of that, you engage volunteers to do most of the work — by writing articles; by exchanging Twitter messages; by posting pictures on Facebook; by holding events in virtual presences done in Second Life — this means that a far vaster audience will be reached for almost zero cost. Well, there is always a cost, of course — the cost of organising things — but it’s way far less than traditional campaigning.

But is it effective? I’d say “yes”, in the sense that it won’t reach all voters, but like the example before, it might reach 70% — the ones that have access to a computer and the Internet. And that’s a huge number of voters; if you can reach those with zero costs, you can pretty much focus on covering the remaining 30% with the traditional campaigning, and probably you would even able to return some of the unspent money (something, I’m sure, that a party would be delighted to do for the good press coverage they’ll get — “we’re saving costs this year because of the on-going financial crisis, and returning to the State coffers some of the money we didn’t spend”).

Clever.

But, of course, there is the backside to all this. Linking to all those social sites, like the official site for Sócrates’ campaign does (“Geração Activa” — Active Generation), bears a huge risk. People will talk back. The social media is not under the control of anybody — most are outside Portugal’s borders anyway — which means no way to figure out how people are going to react. And, remember, at least in Portugal, people are angry with the Sócrates government. Furious, in fact. While the Portuguese are generally benevolent, peaceful, and can’t bother to be violent (our democratic revolution in 1974 would have made Gandhi proud, it was one of the most blood-less and peaceful revolutions ever — a military coup where allegedly only 4 citizens died, shot by the political police. No one from the former regime was killed), they nevertheless can be quite unruly and rough in words. Specially, of course, if they feel that the Internet’s anonymity might give them an extra degree of freedom, to speak in public what they otherwise would never dare to do face-to-face.

I have no idea how this will work out 🙂 Obama, as said, worked from the opposite camp: he was inciting his fellow Americans to change, get rid of the past, work towards the future, give them hope. Sócrates wants his voters to vote on him again and perpetuate his remaining in power, so he can — finally — conclude his plan, interrupted in 2008 with the financial crisis. It won’t be easy to deal with the unruly mob, and I’m personally quite curious about the reaction.

But, of course, there is more!

There was some excited debate on what it means that “a politician has come to Second Life“. If you read the many comments on those articles, you’ll see that people generally disagree that a politician “is in Second Life” if they have a virtual presence, a team, a staff, an organisation, a planned, official event, and people that organise it and lead the discussion. All that, strangely, is… not enough. Whereas on all other social media sites people would happily “accept” that the politician “is there”, they don’t accept that they’re “in Second Life”.

Sócrates is about to change that. As you can see from the video and the site (which sadly is only in Portuguese), Second Life is certainly part of the virtual environments he wants to be “in”. And as the Obama team helping him out to get started was swiftly removed from office — after a minor snafu with a streaming session that went all wrong — and was replaced by a new team (yes, the very same one that put the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic in Second Life), Sócrates was advised to be even bolder: not to be shy, enter SL with his own avatar, and chat with the audience.

Geracao Activa_001This will happen either today at 1 PM SLT at the Geracao Activa island, or next week, on Wednesday, at the same hour. Why the two dates? Sócrates is due to log in to SL several times during his campaign, but since this virtual presence is brand new, and finished in record time, at the last moment he might not have time to do a short chat. These things happen even in real life: campaigning is tough for the candidates, and one delay along the road means that some things will invariably be postponed. So at least two first dates are set down in the agenda for an “official” presence inside Second Life — more to be announced later — but, of course, these are conditioned by the available time.

What can people expect from being in Second Life with a live audience? We all know how SL is so different from other social media tools. For one thing, like in RL, you really have absolutely no control over what people are going to say. On Twitter you don’t really get direct replies. On Facebook, MySpace, and all similar sites, you can exercise control over the replies you publish — similar, of course, to a blog, or an organisation-controlled forum. Flickr, YouTube, etc. are similar. Granted, you cannot avoid that others engage in discussion on their own pages — in fact, this is supposed to encourage that discussion! — but at least you have control over your own “virtual space”.

Me with Tpglourenco Forcella, who lead the team designing the "Geração Activa" island in Second LifeNot so in Second Life! While griefers can be banned, you can’t make people “unsay” what they say in public. For a politician, this is just like being in front of an unruly crowd in real life, where you have no control whatsoever over what you’re going to hear from your audience. It’s better in the sense that you won’t be physically hurt — your avatar might be subjected to visual and verbal abuse (visual abuse will definitely get a lot of press!), but not more than that. But it’s worse since people will not be constrained by any RL issues to do whatever they please, or to say what comes out of their minds.

I remember, in the mid-1990s, when a group brought a politician to IRC, which was, at the same time, being streamed directly to TV. The same issue was brought up — how would people “manage the unruly crowd”? (Things actually went well during that session, but it could have been different…) There was a “damage control” team — channel ops who were on stand by to kick out unruly users (and some were definitely not the friendliest!). But since this was live TV, you would always be able to leave a message before being kicked out. If things got too uncontrolled, I suppose that the show’s director might have cut the scene, but there was always a risk.

Granted, doing live chats with politicians and candidates on TV is boring. I mean, not for the participants, for whom it’s actually quite exciting; but for the TV audience, which will not bother with more than “a few seconds” of text chat scrolling up.

Second Life, on the other hand, is a high-bandwidth environment — you have pretty images (great for TV!), voice (good enough for radio!), and text chat (good for transcripts!). Unlike IRC, if the discussion in-world gets interesting enough, you might show minutes of it on TV instead of seconds. This is naturally quite a huge advantage: free TV coverage for a candidate, that covers the technology, instead of focusing on the campaign, is naturally great, since it’s all done outside the usual time slots allocated for pure campaigning. And, of course, it will reach a different audience — most people will zap to another channel when the campaigning time slots are on, since they’re usually uninteresting, and just “more of the same”.

The central stage of the "Geração Activa" island, where the candidate will talk to the audienceBut an in-world chat in Second Life with rich images, specially if there is the possibility of drama, is always something that an eager journalist might love to air on prime time news 🙂 And if not — the video footage of the event will most certainly be used to do a machinima to post it on all other social media, so nothing will be lost.

Besides the fun in itself, this might just be an even better way to address an audience. The “filtered” nature of social media might make some people reluctant to participate there: what’s the point to do some flaming comments if they just get disapproved? Whereas in Second Life, you might get kicked out, but at least your comment will go through. And on the positive side — yes, there is one too! — if the crowd is more eager to discuss things than actually insult the candidate, this might be a worthwhile way for the candidate to spend some time in SL. Candidates during the campaign phase take time to talk to industry leaders, to organisations, to institutions, to schools — to all the ones that might positively influence the country they live in. The “public in general” might not get so much attention — a handshake here, a comment there, and not much more. In Second Life, the common citizen can come and sit on a roundtable with the candidate and spend some quality time with them — engaging in meaningful discussion. This, I believe, is the future of electronic democracy: a cheap way to engage with your constituency and listen to what the “common citizens” actually think. Without filters.

Being an eager telecommuter myself, and always furious when a silly client “demands” that I join a meeting of an hour on a remote location somewhere, which will lead to wasting 4 or more hours in commuting time, just to have a talk that could perfectly be held in SL (or, well, on the phone… or by email) in half an hour, I can only hope that telecommuting comes to political campaigning too. Imagine a candidate that, instead of doing 5 or 6 meetings in a 24/hour day, spending 10 or 12 hours in travelling, and keeping their meetings to a minimum so they can swiftly travel around the country, would stay those 16 hours in-world, chatting with several groups while in his or her pyjamas. In the first scenario, you might have audiences of thousands, which is good, but the truth is, you won’t reach millions — your hope is that the old-fashioned media just picks up some sound bites from your speech and broadcasts it. So you’d get, say, a few seconds on TV or a paragraph on a newspaper, for the cost of organising an event on a remote place that would host “a few hundreds or thousands” of people, and all the expenses (and stress) of going back and forth.

At the same time, the telecommuting candidate would just log in to Second Life early in the morning, and have a series of chats with, say, 40 people at a time. Do half an hour for each. You can reach over a thousand people that way — directly — without moving further than to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee. But it doesn’t stop there. The chats can be archived on video or audio, transcoded to text, and put online for others to view or read. Then people can disseminate those chats and meetings via their own social media networks. Even if every attendant just tells five friends that they were “at a chat with the candidate”, that means an audience of 5,000 per day. And friends have friends and friends, and some of those are also journalists or opinion-makers with their blogs read by hundreds of thousands. So you message will get across, sooner or later — by video on YouTube, by audio on any podcasting service, by chat on blogs, Facebook, or wherever you post it. And it will be picked by the media too. In fact, this model might even hit information overload — remember, there are no filters, and no limit to information archival on the world-wide web, so nothing prevents this data stream to accumulate. At the end of the day, which candidate will have the most impact? The one that spent zero on the campaigning budget — but nevertheless contacted uncountable thousands of people — or the ones struggling to paste billboards all over the place which nobody sees or remembers anyway?

In a time of financial crisis, where high-cost, low-impact solutions are frowned upon, I think that pushing campaigning debates to the digital world is the only thing that really makes sense. At the very very least, the candidates will be interacting with different people: the ones that never bother with the traditional media anyway. People that would never dream ever of travelling hundreds of miles to enter a crowded area to listen to a candidate’s very political speech, which would only be applauded by the eager party members anyway. These might, however, come to a nice friendly chat in Second Life — why not, if you can spare a few minutes without travelling anywhere and without getting stuck in a crowd of fanatics? — and have the opportunity to talk back instead merely of listening to a speech written by the candidate’s spin doctors.

I have no idea if Sócrates will find the experience in Second Life valuable or not, or if he’s going to publish any results of it, and how successful it was compared to the more traditional campaigning venues. He might do so if he wins the elections. Those should be quite interesting numbers to get, so that others might be encouraged to do the same.

What I know is that the irreverent organisers of this event are already planning to get the opposition in Second Life too, and organise a televised, live debate, streamed to national TV, where the candidates will discuss their political agenda live, in front of a SL audience — just like any other typical SL roundtable. If they manage to pull that off (and who knows, I have seen stranger things happening), I’m quite sure that this will be another massive paradigm shift.

Although, of course, I’m sure that my immersionist friends are cringing in pain and thinking what on Earth made them join Second Life in the first place, now that people like Gwyn are so excited to have real world politicians all eagerly doing things in-world.

See you later at 1 PM — or next Wednesday. Bring an extra dose of patience and leave the tomato launcher at home, if you please. But if you don’t, well, remember, there is nothing like free, unfiltered speech — treasure it!

José Sócrates, Prime MInister of Portugal, talking to Second LifeDisclaimer: I’m not affiliated with Sócrates’ party, or with any of the supporting organisations of his campaign, formal or informal, that organised this event or any others. In fact, I will not vote for him at all in the upcoming elections! Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that I’m not happy by seeing a candidate (and a Prime Minister, at that!) eager to use Second Life to be in touch with his fellow citizens. So I wish him good luck, and probably for the first time in several decades since I got a vote, I’ll be happy to attend a “campaigning event” — even though it’s not the one for the party I’m going to vote 🙂 I just wished that my own party would do the same…

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