Election season is here again and voters are anxiously seeking information on a range of issues to help them decide how to cast their vote in October.
On the environment front, this year the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) has taken “awareness generation” up a notch. It is helping voters stay informed with a new VoteEnvironment2008.ca Web site.
The site has evolved into a forum for DSF’s Nature Challenge community to discuss the upcoming election. It features a community blog, a DSF and friends blog, issue sheets, questions for candidates on hot environmental topics, and a guide to hosting a town hall forum.
Members can quickly post content, voice opinions and start discussions.
“The site emerged from our discussions about how DSF can engage supporters,” said Elijah ven der Giessen, outreach co-ordinator at DSF. He said the goal is to transform supporters from “passive information receivers” into folk who are deeply engaged in community issues.
“Ultimately we want [people] to vote environment, which means holding the feet of all parties to the fire and demanding real change.”
Part of Vancouver-based DSF Foundation’s mandate is to use science and education to protect nature and our present and future quality of life.
The Foundation researches innovative ways of building a clean and competitive economy, without threatening the natural services we use.
It does not accept government grants and is funded by about 40,000 individual supporters across Canada and the world.
The Web site has no official ties to any political party.
Created using IGLOO’s software suite, the Web site allows voters to start a dialogue and find important information quickly using Web 2.0 tools such as forums, blogs, videos, content rating features, commenting, polling, and e-newsletters.
Some of the same Web tools and strategies were used very successfully by the Obama campaign in the U.S., noted ven der Giessen.
That campaign has been a wakeup call to Canadian NGOs, he said.
“Content created by supporters, rather than the party machine, will be increasingly important as voters take over the role of marketing.”
Gerard van der Burg, director of consulting services and emerging markets at IGLOO Inc. agrees.
Kitchener, Ont.-based IGLOO offers social networking applications for businesses and other organizations.
The company says its software helps businesses improve performance by fostering collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking between distributed teams.
VoteEnvironment2008.ca that harnesses these capabilities was built and deployed in just three days.
The Web site currently has more than 500 community members and pulls in 16,000 page views each day.
VoteEnvironment2008.ca is a moderated site, and all blog posts can be commented on.
The free online community allows members to discuss topics such as public transportation, carbon footprint, and climate change, as well as whatrole these issues should play during the election campaign.
The impact of user generated content on the Web is already being felt in the series of candidates who have dropped out because of blog postings, says ven der Giessen.
Politics, he said, will either be the “domain of boring saints, or Canadians will have to learn to ignore these mini scandals for what they are: distractions.”
As a society, he said, Web 2.0 would make us more understanding of the impassioned nature of online speech.”
But another expert believes independent bloggers often do more harm than good.
“They just spread rumors and innuendo faster than ever before and that likely alienates many voters,” noted Tim Hickernell, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
He said this also seems to have created a mindset among media persons that they have to compete with bloggers and can report rumors “without the traditional fact checking and critical analysis the media is supposed to perform.”
While the Obama Campaign pays a large staff to make outbound phone calls, the McCain Campaign is using social networks to enlist volunteers to make phone calls from their own homes. That’s a kind of a distributed, volunteer phone bank, Hickernell notes.
Public versus private social networks, is the key decision point that political organizations need to address, the analyst said.
“In addition to blogs, [this time around] we’re seeing campaigns plug into public social networks and issues-oriented private social networks being established.”
Hickernell said a campaign with a limited post-election lifetime would possibly find it best to enlist and reach out to supporters and “fans” via an existing “public” social network.
But van der Burg says these risks don’t apply to blogs and Web 2.0 postings on the DSF site. “They use science to support their facts.”
In political campaigns Web2.0 technology can play a vital role, especially when funds are tight, Hickernell noted.
He said a good example of this is the use of such tools by the McCain-Palin campaign. “They are at a financial disadvantage compared to the well-financed Barak Obama campaign, so they are focusing on how Web 2.0 can be [used] to more efficiently to execute the campaign at a lower cost.”
By contrast, he said, a private social network may provide longer term benefits to an issues-oriented political group – provided the “issue” doesn’t go away after the election is over. “Activity may wane, but the group can be left with a ready-made community that can be called to action for future events.”