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Internet opportunities are being missed

15 April 2010

Online election campaigning is failing to engage voters according to a survey from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). The broad-brush survey, which lifts the lid on the role of the Internet in influencing voters, reveals a wide gap between what the electorate is looking for and what political parties are providing. 79% of respondents could not recall seeing any online presence, such as emails, advertisements and websites, from the main political parties. This figure drops only slightly, to 65% for 18-24 year olds who are more likely to be online.

But the results also show that voters have an appetite for improved online political engagement. The survey of 2,550 people says that 40% would like more opportunity to interact online with politicians and political parties. This figure rises to 60% for crucial votes in the 18-24 years range where only 37% voted at the last election.

Yet political parties are failing to deliver. Voters are not impressed with how politicians use the Internet for electioneering, with one in four (25%) saying that they don't use it well at all, and a further 52% unsure of the effectiveness of their online electioneering. NESTA argues that politicians need to move beyond top-down traditional campaigning and maximise the power that online technology offers to engage people on critical issues. This is despite considerable investment by political parties in using the Internet as a way of rallying their activists.

NESTA chief executive, Jonathan Kestenbaum says that while there’s much talk of a 'digital election', political parties are falling short in delivering what voters want online. “Currently, they are using tactical measures such as buying Google AdWords to raise brand awareness but the Internet provides the means to have a much more dynamic dialogue with voters,” he says.

NESTA's survey also found that better use of online technology would address the UK's voting apathy. Of UK adults who were eligible to vote in the last general election, but chose not to, 44% claimed they were more likely to vote in a future election if they could do so online. With only 61% of the nation voting in the 2005 general election, this could significantly enhance democratic participation to almost 80% (a further 8 million people). Jonathan Kestenbaum believes that, so far, we've seen a “triumph of superficial tactics over genuine engagement” and voters aren't falling for it. “It's a missed opportunity particularly if we are to remedy our historically low turn-out rates.”

Turning to more cerebral matters, new research commissioned by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT found that just 55% of the public used the Internet to access art, music or writing, while only 15% had published their own music, photography, art, writing or films online. A large portion of society is apparently missing out on the cultural experiences that the Internet has to offer, both in accessing content and creating and publishing their own. The Institute’s ‘Savvy Citizens’ campaign hopes to address this with the launch of its culture section last week.

For the next six weeks, the Savvy Citizens site will provide information on accessing cultural content online, as well as providing advice about creating and publishing personal content, like blogs, music and pictures. BCS president, Elizabeth Sparrow wants people to recognise the importance of information and IT in what she refers to as the online ‘Cultural Revolution’, and seize the opportunity to be a part of it themselves.

Research carried out by the Department of Culture Media and Sport reveals the situation for cultural experiences offline is little better, with almost 14% (13.8%) of the British public not taking part in any cultural or sporting activity in the 12 months to December 2009. Less than half (45.8%) had attended a museum, gallery or archive at least once in the last 12 months, and just over a third (37.6%) had used a public library service at least once in the past 12 months.
According to Elizabeth Sparrow, the Internet has democratised culture. “It has given people the freedom to access, learn about and develop culture in a more accessible way, not limited by geography, class or education. It has become a vital channel to enjoy, create and share culture and we welcome developments by organisations like the V&A museum that has catalogued its collection online so that it’s available to all. We hope that more will follow their example.”

To highlight the value in accessing cultural collections online, the Savvy Citizens site will be featuring a blog post from Sarah Winmill, Head of IS Services at the V&A museum, whose website has a section dedicated to the museum’s collection, all of which is accessible online.

Les Hunt

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