Online Campaigns in the 2009 Election

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Mr. Nir Atmor of IDI's Political Reform program, writes about the role of online campaigns in the 2009 Israeli general elections. The weeks preceding the elections revealed significant attempts by political parties to utilize the Internet as a primary campaigning instrument. Atmor applauds the politicians' "wisdom in adapting to a new technological reality", with the Internet at its core.

Ever since Howard Dean's successful Internet campaign in the 2004 Democratic primaries, the US has witnessed major changes in the nature of presidential election campaigns. Although Dean did not receive the Democratic nomination, he is often referred to as the first politician to effectively utilize the Internet as a recruitment and fundraising tool.Dean's fundraising method is commonly referred to as the "$100 revolution"; most of the donations were in the amounts of $25, $50 and $100. More recently, Barak Obama's brilliant online campaign contributed to his successful presidential bid. His revolutionary campaigning techniques will no doubt be analyzed for years to come. Their effectiveness can be easily demonstrated by reviewing a few basic statistics: Obama received over one million donations, totaling over $640,000,000, primarily via the Internet; over 850,000 people turned to the Internet to access information and coordinate their participation in more than 50,000 campaign events across the United States; some 90,000,000 Obama-related videos were viewed on and over 2,000,000 Facebook users registered as Obama supporters on this popular networking website. These astounding figures are crucial for our understanding of the sensational campaign that led Obama to the White House.See

It is difficult to compare the United States and Israeli election campaigns for a variety of reasons. While presidential campaigns in the U.S. span two full years, parties running for Israel's Knesset must often make do with less than four months of campaigning prior to the election. In the 2009 election cycle, the three-week military operation in the Gaza Strip suspended the political discourse that normally precedes general elections. Even so, when it comes to online campaigns, a brief look at the parties' websites reveals a significant attempt to utilize the Internet as a primary instrument in their respective campaigns.

Over the past few weeks, two parties in Israel have taken major steps toward integrating Internet technology into their internal decision making processes. "Strong Israel", a new party headed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, a former MK, was the first political party in Israel to conduct its primaries online. On December 10th, 2008, as much as 93% of "Strong Israel" party members exercised their right to vote in the party primaries and participated in determining the party list.

The right-wing "National Union" and "National Religious Party" briefly joined forces and turned to over 10,000 supporters to help choose a name for their new party—"The Jewish Home." In addition, supporters were invited to nominate candidates for the new list. Some 560 candidates were nominated online, and a committee headed by General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror brought that number down to 40. Eventually, both parties were dissatisfied with the union for numerous reasons and decided to part ways. The attempt to open the candidate selection process to the public in "public primaries" proved to be an ineffective means to assure the survival and unity of the party; in fact, it may have led to the parties' mutual disappointment.

Fundraising is a central part of online campaigning in the United States; however, it has remained largely marginal in Israel. Israeli parties rely primarily on public funding, with private donations constituting only 1-2% of the parties' campaign budget. This year, Israel witnessed the first attempts by political parties to raise money online. MK Michael Eitan was able to raise 50,000 NIS through an online fundraising campaign that limited contributions per donor to 500 NIS. Despite Eitan's efforts, online fundraising attempts in Israel have yet to raise significant sums.

YouTube and Social Networks

Attempts to replicate Obama's successes in the realm of online networking have generated some positive results in Israel. The New York Times recently pointed out a striking resemblance between the Likud Party's new website and Barak Obama's website. Most Israeli parties also placed considerable emphasis on developing a presence on YouTube and on Facebook, two of the most popular sites for videos and social networking. Additionally, Likud and Meretz have both launched social network applications on their party websites.

As we enter the final few days prior to the elections, it is doubtful whether we could call Israel's experience with Internet campaigns a full-fledged online revolution. It seems that despite all their efforts, the parties have yet to grasp the key aspects of Internet culture:

  1. Interactivity: The Internet's most defining characteristic is its interactivity. Being a two-way means of communication, the Internet could allow voters to turn to their representatives with questions, comments and requests. One of the greatest "unknowns" surrounding the upcoming elections is whether the parties and their representatives will choose to listen to their supporters, learn from them and respond to their wishes.

  2. Mass Recruitment: Recruitment is by far the most challenging aspect of an election campaign. Despite the technological advantages of the Internet, it cannot solely fulfill a layperson's desire to become meaningfully engaged in party politics. On the other hand, political parties now have the capacity to encourage civic activism through interactive tools to educate and engage a variety of social sectors.

The Internet is a remarkable tool—far more than a means of sending e-mail. It is an easily accessible, fast, cheap and borderless means of communication. The potential of this tool is almost unlimited. Yet, the primary question at hand is not one of the Internet's virtues, but rather of the politicians' wisdom in adapting to a new technological reality and to the new means of communication, in their willingness to make the transition from a traditional use of communication mediums to broadcast their personal positions and perspectives to a new political environment in which there is an open line of communication between voters and their representatives.