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0 in Italian local campaigns: the case of 2010 regional elections Agnese Vardanega Università di Teramo email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org 1. Introduction For election campaigning and political communication, Web 2.0 has represented a paramount innovation compared to Web 1.0 in that it allows users to be active producers of web contents, and to interact with websites, applications and other people. Many scholars – as well as activist groups on the Web – have thus seen these new media as an epochal opportunity for improving civic participation, and for developing ‘bottom-up’ campaigns (Kalnes 2009). However, many studies indicate that the positive effects of Web 2.0, both on the results of elections and on civic engagement, rest upon the wider institutional and social environment (Anstead and Chadwick 2009). Furthermore, besides the so–called ‘optimists’ and utopians, some scholars have pointed out that many ‘offline’ inequalities can affect online participation and engagement (Anstead & Chadwick 2009). Nam and Stromer-Galley (2011), for example, have recently argued that socio-economically advantaged are much more likely to do online political activities. This point is particularly relevant when analysing Italy, a country that shows a great internal differentiation from the social, cultural and economic point of view. The access to the Internet, and broadband access in particular, is also unequal, while general indicators pose the country much below the European average (49% vs. over 60%). Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that these changes are doomed to deeply transform, either in the short or in the long term, the public sphere – that is, the systemic relations between politics, media and civil society – even if the direction is still unpredictable. These transformations, which stand in the background of a general crisis of political representation and traditional parties, can also be studied as innovation processes, which involve a plurality of social actors: candidates, as well as parties (both at a central and a local level), civil society, experts and specialised communication agencies. With reference to the Italian situation, for example, it is possible to hypothesise that weaknesses in civicness and participation culture, technological backwardness, and resistances within parties reinforce each other in a vicious circle, slowing down change. 1
On the other hand, studies conducted in other European countries reveal a general inclination toward a ‘traditional’ or limited usage of social tools by candidates and parties. Particularly interesting is the expression ‘Web 1.5’, introduced by Jackson and Lilleker (2009) to describe the strategies adopted by British parties to gain the advantages of both Web 1.0 — central control on the information flow — and Web 2.0 — i.e. interactivity. ‘Web 1.5’ strategies can be seen as the way in which parties deal with the ‘problem’ of continuous innovation, driven by the Internet. However, local interactions among organisational factors, settled communication practices and the wider social and institutional environment, make it difficult, if not impossible, to advance a general interpretation to such dynamic processes of change. This study was conducted during the 2010 Italian regional electoral campaign, in order to explore interactivity — as a way for improving participation, information, and interest, and the relationships between civil society and parties — within the websites of the candidates. The election involved 13 regions and 52 candidates to the presidency (Table 1): some data from an ongoing study on 2011 mayoral elections will be also presented, to provide further elements of comparison. Table 1: Candidates by Parties (2010 Regional Elections).
Parties Partito Democratico Popolo della Libertà Lega Nord Lista Bonino Movimento 5 Stelle UDC Forza Nuova Federazione della Sinistra Italia dei Valori Sinistra Ecologia Libertà altro No. of candidates 11 10 3 3 5 5 3 2 1 1 8 Regions Basilicata Calabria Campania Emilia-Romagna Lazio Liguria Lombardy Marche Piedmont Apulia Tuscany Umbria Veneto TOTAL 52 No. of candidates 4 3 4 4 3 3 5 3 4 4 5 3 7 52
2. Methodology and definitions 2.1. Interactivity Assuming as a starting point the four levels of interactivity proposed by Van Dijk (1999)1, StromerGalley (2000) identifies two types of interactions on the Web: computer- or network-mediated human interaction, and media-interactivity, the possibility of interact with the medium itself. This second type of interactivity «allows campaigns to create a simulacrum of interaction between campaigns and citizens» (Stromer-Galley & Foot 2002). In 2004, the author proposed a slightly different distinction between ‘interactivity between people’ as a process, and ‘interactivity between people and computers or networks’ as a product, roughly corresponding to the former concept of ‘media-interaction’, and related to technology (StromerGalley 2004). Interactivity does not imply actual interaction, or real relationships. For instance, in a blog, the opportunity to comment does not imply that the visitors will actually comment, nor that the author will read comments, or reply. More importantly, commenting on a blog or posting on the wall of a fan page does not imply a real and meaningful relationship between the author and her readers / visitors. On the other hand, interactivity can be effectively encouraged (or discouraged) through texts (Trammel et al. 2006), independently from the use of social media as such. This study aimed at analysing the use of social tools by the candidates, in terms of presence / absence of certain features, considered as ‘social’ affordances: in this sense, it analyses interactivity, rather than actual interactions. In order to gather information on interactions, however, a content analysis of candidates’ messages on Twitter (‘twits’) has been carried out2. 2.2. Indicators To assess candidates’ web presence, the following indicators have been used: • Existence of a personal website (o weblog): with the possibility of commenting (value = 2), without possibility of commenting / static website (1), none (0);
«(a) interactivity between human beings, (b) between human beings and media or machines, (c) between human beings by means of media, and even (d) between media or between machines (technical interactivity)» (StromerGalley & Foot 2002) Although far less popular than Facebook in Italy, Twitter is particularly interesting in that it is a platform basically conceived to interact, and to interact publicly. This implies, from a technical point of view, that on Twitter (unlike on Facebook), messages sent by users are – by default – public, and consequently accessible through API (Application Programming Interface) or Rss Feed. It is thus possible to download twits’ texts and analyse them.
Existence of a Facebook page or personal profile, referring to the candidate: present (value = 1), not clearly identifiable (when the account appeared to be unofficial: 0.5); none (0);
Existence of a Twitter account: active (value = 1), inactive (0.5), none (0).
From these items, a simple additive index has been calculated (named ‘social interactivity’), to measure the affordances offered to visitors for interacting with each candidate. In addition to some characteristics of the candidates (such as age, party and eventually coalition), the “offer” of social media has been studied in the light of its potential “demand”, i.e.: average age of residents within the region (younger electors should be more acquainted to and interested in the use of social media) and the share of “big users” of the Internet (also a good indicator of broadband access).
3. Results and discussion 3.1. Web presence of the candidates In 2010 Regional Elections, nearly 60 percent of the candidates for the Presidency (31 of 52) had a website or blog, only 17 allowing comments. This percentage drops to 53% among mayoral candidates in 2011 campaign (Chart 1), probably because of reduced budgets, particularly in smaller municipalities; for similar reasons, the share of websites without comments rises from 45 to 49%. While the presence on Facebook remains almost unchanged (about 80 percent), the presence on Twitter falls from 33 to 20%. Not only is Twitter far less popular than Facebook in Italy, but it is also generally used only by the candidates who have a blog or a personal website3. The offer of social interactivity does not seem to match actual or potential ‘demand’, as previously defined: in Chart No. 2, it is evident the absence of a relationship between candidates’ score on the ‘social interactivity’ index and the average age of the residents in their respective regions (r = -0.107). In simple terms, candidates’ usage of social tools does not depend on – or does not go after – the age of their potential electors. The same is for the expected – or at least expectable – relationship between candidates’ scores and the share of ‘big users’ of the Internet in their territories (r = -0.199; Chart 3).
As a consequence, in 2011 mayoral campaigns, in small and medium capital towns or among smaller parties, Facebook has been the only platform used to guarantee a presence on the web (15,7% of the candidates).
Chart 1: Web Presence of the Candidates in 2010 (regional elections:) and 2011 (mayoral elections4)
Chart 2: ‘Social’ Interactivity and Average Age of Residents5
223 mayor candidates for provincial capitals. ‘Residents’ do not exactly coincide with ‘electors’, mainly because of the presence of foreigners, who lower average age in many areas.
Chart 3: ‘Social’ Interactivity and Usage of the Internet in the Region6
Chart 4: ‘Social’ Interactivity Scores among the two Main Candidates by Region
Percentage of people aged 6 and more who have used the Internet every day (Istat - Eurostat).
Since the absence of significant relations could depend on the little number of candidates considered, and/or be the result of other relevant variables – such as parties’ size, or the realistic expectations to win (coalition and incumbency) – it can be useful to consider the scores of the two main candidates in each region. In Chart 4, regions are sorted in a descending order based on the share of ‘big users’ of the Internet, and the bars represent the two main contenders for the presidency: again, no pattern seems to emerge from the data7. 3.2. Interactivity without interaction In 2010 voters did not have many opportunities for ‘interacting’ with their candidates: a 17 % of electoral websites did not offer interactive tools at all, and — even when they did — candidates were not involved in actual interactions. On the other hand, comments from visitors were quite infrequent, with some relevant exception, mainly on Facebook. If it is true that comments can be deleted by the administrators of a Facebook page, or by the owner of a blog, this is not the case of Twitter, where interactions were, nonetheless, infrequent. Candidates were not engaged in conversations, as indicated by the little number of ‘mentions’ posted: only 45 in over 1,000 messages, of which 24 by one candidate (21.8% of his overall messages) and 10 by another one (namely Nichi Vendola8; 3.4% of his ‘twits’). This situation seems to be quite common among European politicians. Different hypotheses have been advanced by scholars to interpret the underuse of social media and Web 2.0 opportunities for improving electoral communication, some of which may apply to 2010 regional elections. A. ‘technological divide’ Both in 2010 and 2011 campaigns, many websites — especially among minor candidates, parties or municipalities — were obsolete from a technical point of view; some were evidently made by the candidates themselves, or maybe by non–professional volunteers, without any integration with the ‘offline’ electoral campaign. As a consequence, websites were not only static (without interactive features such as comments, search tools, etc.) and old–fashioned from an aesthetic point of view, but also non standardscompliant, a well known threaten to their visibility on search engines like Google, that is their visibility on the Web.
The lack of a relationship between ‘offer’ and ‘demand’ of interactivity seems to be confirmed by the provisional analysis of 2011 data; in this latter case, however, the higher number of variables and candidates considered will consent to explore data in more detail. The leader of the post–communist party Sinistra Ecologia Libertà), whose 2010 campaign had been highly participative, under many respects.
B. ‘information overload Sometimes, the absence of interactive tools like comments is clearly intentional. Particularly interesting, under this respect, is the case of Nichi Vendola, whose campaign had been organised by an important communication agency. «We have such a flow of comments on Facebook, that we cannot even keep up» said the responsible for the social media campaign9, stressing the well known problem of the so-called ‘information overload, and admitting that the choice was due to organisational problems, affected in turn (also) by budget limits. ‘Information overflow’, from the organisational point of view, may be related to the need of control over ‘risks’ or unpredictable events during the campaign: while technological changes are very rapid, candidates and parties (as well as enterprises) tend to prefer established strategies and settled practice, rather than risking – especially in an electoral campaign. Chart 5: ‘Take the Votes and Run’ – Activity of Twitter accounts, during and after the campaign
C. the electoral system: candidates, parties and coalitions In the Italian regional electoral system, candidates to the presidency, even if generally proposed by a coalition of parties, play a very important role as individuals for the success of the campaign. However, candidates avoid using their personal websites, as well as the symbols of their own party, and tend to open new websites or blogs exclusively devoted to campaigning, bound to be closed soon after the elections. Social accounts share the same destiny, as shown in Chart 5 (referring to the most active candidates on Twitter, for 2010).
It is difficult to say whether this strategy is aimed at highlighting individual personalities or at assuring equal chances to all parties of the coalition in the competition for Councils’ seats (candidates’ parties could be advantaged). What is certain, is that this ‘exit strategy’ does not help a lasting relationship between candidates and their constituencies. A quite simple solution has been devised in 2011 mayoral campaign by Piero Fassino (national secretary of DS party), who redirected his domain toward the new electoral website. In 2010, instead, Nichi Vendola, opted for a very personalised campaign, using his own site for pursuing a personal legitimacy both as the President of Apulia region and as a national leader. However, both the solutions are suitable only for those politicians who already have an established web presence. That is why this modality of ‘centralization’ (‘coalition sites’ or ‘coalition candidate’s sites’) is not only the result of an inveterate habit of major parties, but seems to be suitable also for those small parties and movements whose candidates are not very popular: on search engines, after all, electors will search (and will find) only the candidates they already know.
4. Conclusions, limitations and further research On the basis of the data here presented, it is possible to conclude that 2010 regional web campaigns were not conceived as part of a strategy aimed at involving citizens: in most cases, e-campaigning has been juxtaposed, rather than being integrated, with the ‘offline’ political campaigns; in addition, although the mobilisation for supporting campaigns was sometimes solicited, a more active participation in deliberative processes was not encouraged (see also Gibson et al. 2000). The absence of identifiable patterns in the use of social tools with respect to candidates’ “audience” (average age of the population, and diffusion and use of the Internet in the regions) could indicate the experimental character of current web campaigns: lacking sufficient information and/or knowledge, the various actors involved ‘check’ several strategies, without any settled theory or good practice. However, some hypothesis about relevant factors affecting the use of social media in web campaigning couldn’t be statistically controlled, because of the little number of candidates involved in 2010 regional elections. In particular: — The role of both the size and the internal organisation of political parties: Italian parties are very differentiated, ranging from large “traditional” parties (according to European standards), such as Democratic Party to small movements and “light” parties, such as Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 9
Cinque Stelle or Di Pietro’s Italia Dei Valori. This variability requires, of course, a larger sample of candidates. — The role of personal characteristics of the candidates: even if younger candidates are more likely to adopt social tools to communicate on the Web, in Italy they are also more likely to belong to smaller parties, with lower budgets (so that the correlation between age and ‘social interactivity’ scores was slightly positive!). Also the attitudes toward innovation of politicians and communication professionals seem to play a role in the adoption of these new tools, and would deserve to be studied more carefully, also in terms of sociology of technology and innovation.
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Stromer-Galley, J. and Foot, K. A. (2002). ‘Citizen Perceptions of Online Interactivity and Implications for Political Campaign Communication’. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 8: 0 (available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.10836101.2002.tb00161.x/) Trammell K. D. et al. (2006). ‘Evolution of Online Campaigning: Increasing Interactivity in Candidate Web Sites and Blogs Through Text and Technical Features’. Mass Communication and Society 9(1):21-44. Van Dijk, J. (1999). The network society: Social aspects of new media. L. Spoorenberg (Trans.) Thousand Oaks : Sage. Zittel T. (2009). ‘Lost in Technology? Political Parties and the Online Campaigns of Constituency Candidates in Germany's Mixed Member Electoral System’. Journal of Information Technology & Politics 6(3):298-311.
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