Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Digitally Together - Politically Alone

You Had To Be There: National's Rob Muldoon campaigning in the 1970s. Digital political communication will feature hugely in this year's general election. But can the solitary experience of on-line politics ever match the powerful feelings of solidarity generated by the mass events of an active and participatory democracy?
 
THIS YEAR’S ELECTION will be won and lost in private. People seated in front of PCs, or, more likely, caressing their smart phones, will be the ones who decide between National and Labour. On both sides of the great political divide some very smart people are already working on ways to bring their followers together – alone.
 
What a contrast with the campaigning methods of the past. Right up until that most pivotal of election years, 1984, the opening of an election campaign was an unequivocally public event. Political parties typically hired the largest covered venues available – town halls, theatres, opera houses – from the stages of which their leaders addressed audiences of one-to-two thousand energised supporters.
 
And some determined opponents’, too. Because this was the era in which the noble art of heckling still boasted many proud exponents.
 
When Rob Muldoon kicked-off National’s official campaign in Hamilton’s Founders Theatre in 1975,  a clutch of seasoned Labour hecklers were lying in wait. As the pugnacious Opposition Leader was working his way towards his oratorical climax, one of those hecklers cried out in a voice that echoed around the auditorium: “Who stabbed Jack in the back!?” [Jack Marshall had been deposed as National’s leader by Muldoon barely twelve months earlier.] It took the great counter-puncher more than a few beats to recover his composure.
 
All good fun! With the entire spectacle broadcast live on the state-owned radio and television networks. Political leaders truly earned the right to rule us in those far-off days before auto-cues, headset microphones and carefully screened audiences waving pre-printed party placards in front of the cameras.
 
None more so that the revered Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, who barnstormed the country in 1938. Diagnosed with colon cancer, Savage disregarded the advice of his doctors to conserve his strength, and hit the campaign trail. Faced with near-universal press hostility, he knew he would have to sell his party’s ground-breaking Social Security legislation face-to-face. Town halls could not contain the crowds that gathered to hear him. Labour stalwarts in Dunedin recalled wonderingly the rain-swept afternoon that Savage spoke to an audience of 20,000 at Carisbrook. It wasn’t even his largest.
 
The mandatory broadcasting of campaign openings was a legacy of Savage’s prime-ministership. Like the social-media of the twenty-first century, these live broadcasts allowed political leaders to execute an end-run around the conservative gatekeepers of the privately-owned media.
 
The live broadcasting of Parliament was instituted for exactly the same reason. Working-class families gathered around their radio sets were able to hear Savage describe Labour’s Social Security legislation as “applied Christianity” – as he said it. They were also able to hear National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, dismissing it with a sneer as “applied lunacy”.
 
Paradoxically, the generation raised on Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, will find more to respond to in this celebrated Labour legend than their Baby Boomer parents. Millennials need no instruction in the galvanising effect of instantaneity: the extraordinary privilege of being able to monitor events as they happen. A single tweet can reach 20,000 people in a millisecond – and none of its recipients are required to stand for hours in the freezing Dunedin rain to receive it.
 
Hence the sustained effort of all the major parties to craft their messages to the specifications of our digital age. Tweets, text messages, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, and personally addressed e-mails will increasingly complement the old technology of snail-mail-shots, robo-calls, pamphlets, posters, TV/radio/print ads and, of course, all those bloody billboards.
 
Parliament itself has bowed before these new digital imperatives. The mandatory broadcasting of the political parties’ opening and closing election statements has been discontinued. State subsidisation of party-political communications will continue, but now it’s to be applied across all platforms.
 
New Zealanders should, therefore, prepare themselves for an onslaught of algorithmic politics. Messages pitched with unnerving precision at our entire demographic profile: gender and ethnicity; marital status and family composition; level of educational attainment; occupation and work history; income-bracket – all the stuff Facebook and Google know already – will arrive, unbidden, in vast numbers.
 
Will they work? You bet your life! You’ll be blown away by their sky-high production values and will thrill to the uncanny resonance of their messages. What’s more, you will feel caught-up in something much bigger than yourself: a movement for change; a people’s crusade! Your determination to cast your vote on 23 September (or before!) will grow ever stronger.
 
But will it be the same as standing in a rain-swept stadium listening to a frail and desperately ill old man asking you to vote for applied Christianity? Will the sound-track in your ear-pods produce the same reaction as 2,000 people chanting Mul-doon! Mul-doon! Mul-doon!? Will your computer screen meet your eye with a flash of solidarity, or join with you in wild applause?
 
Can citizens truly be together – alone?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 May 2017.

11 comments:

Slugger said...

Beats trudging the streets in all weathers with arm fulls of leaflets that most probably ended up in the bin...

jh said...

I remember Norm Kirk saying: "and how do we get into this position? Heckler: "Vote Labour!"
Today every article, every commenter on a current affairs panel is monitored and weighed for effect. Only some are qualified to have an opinion while the rest have been declared "natavist" (unclean) and therefore disqualified.

PR consultant David Cormack and former ACT MP Heather Roy discuss the week in politics with Patrick Gower and Lisa Owen.

David Cormack:
No one thinks immigration is a good thing , which I think it is a good thing. You know they tend to come in and fill roles which we traditionally don't fill. They add diversity and they're human beings that we are talking about, and it is just so sick of our political parties using it as a dog whistle of populism which is so upsetting in the New Zealand political landscape.
Lisa owen:
“would they do it though if the public wasn't interested?'
David Cormack:
That isn't a reason to do something. You don't do what the public thinks is right: you do what is right. They don't necessarily mesh up.
http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/shows/2017/05/panel-david-cormack-and-heather-roy.html

Guerilla Surgeon said...

They won't catch up with quite so many old people on Facebook – and old people do tend to vote. Still, if they can get some kids out voting I'll be very pleased. I remember sitting listening to Muldoon once, and I have a memory that someone brought a piglet into the auditorium and made it squeal – a fair bit. Probably animal cruelty, but funny. But I've no idea if it's true. Memory failing. In my defence, it SHOULD be true.:) But I still think that there is no substitute for face-to-face, house-to-house canvassing. I've lived in the same house for more than 30 years now and been canvassed once – by phone. National probably wouldn't bother where I live, but Labour damned well should.

peter petterson said...

Brings back a great many memories. But older people don't need all the publicity to vote any way. Most of us KNOW who we are voting for long before we go into the polling booths.

Jack Scrivano said...

I met Rob Muldoon twice: once when I almost bought his house; and once when I was the next speaker on Radio Pacific. On both occasions I was ready to dislike him. But, in person, he had a strange charm. I wonder how – if at all – that would have come across on social media.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Together with the directed messages this amazing technology provides everyone with unlimited (except by time) opportunity to find the answers to their own questions. There is nothing that could ever be done about the wilfully ignorant voter ,but I'm sure the chances of getting an informed result have never been anywhere near so good . The policies , and their credibility will have to win people over rather than emotive rhetoric and stand up debating competence. Sad perhaps to loose the excitement of the hustings but I don't think democracy is a net looser.
The millennials who inhabit facebook twitter and snapchat are very used to spam and bots of all kinds arriving on their device. The persuaders had to get with the programme or loose relevance entirely , but again I think the net result is a better informed public.
Cheers David J S

David Stone said...

I meant to add they are still turning out in numbers in the rain to Corbyn's rallies.
D J S

greywarbler said...

David Stone
Your thought that the info is out there for potential voters is true and yet it has to be presented so the ones susceptible to reason are reached. I remember reading about Hush Puppies finding a way to gather interest and get the brand up from its seemingly inevitable decline. political parties should read about that, they make good shoes and I am glad they got 'saved'. I'd like Labour to also do that.

For the uninformed, and the wilfully ignorant voter. Well. You can't find your way in a fog. You have favourite clothes that suit whatever persona you adopt, and it's like that with your mind; convenient clothes, convenient ideas. The incessant quick rap that you hear on the radio, the carefully orchestrated tv celebrity news readers. The pre-digested opinions, delivered dramatically and emotionally. The ill-considered prejudices, the unreasoned expectations, acceptance of overweening authority - all prevent rational thought and fill the mind with bubble wrap.

And the only way through to the precious mind and brain within is to pop all the bubbles starting with one at a time, till the brain wakes up and seizes the day. Carry the message along with something the life. Not a Tui moment, but a We People moment.

BlisteringAttack said...

Muldoon did have a quirky sense of humour about him.

I recall one time when he walking to the chamber to deliver the budget speech, he faced and chuckled to the TV camera and said: 'Too late now...' and kept walking.

Slugger said...

What I do remember about the '84 snap election announcement was the look of horror on the face of Sue Wood, the National Party President, who was considering a snap election that they would likely lose on the strength of a bottle and a half of gin.

It's been said that after the announcement, Muldoon went back to his office and polished off the remainder of the second bottle.

Regardless of your politics, and on one level, it's the stuff of legends.

Chris Trotter said...

TO: "Gorilla Sturgeon"

Choose another name.