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.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...