Interview of Prof. Matthew Hindman, assistant professor at George Washington University, participant to the last Symposium Transnational Connections held at IE University, by leading Spanish economic media www.expansion.com (M. G. Mayo, Reporter) / English Version.

Matthew Hindman: “We should not exaggerate the role of Internet in Arab revolution, it´s only a catalyst” 

Matthew Hindman is a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University (USA) and has written the book ‘The Myth of Digital Democracy. He was recently in Spain, participating to  a Congress on Political Communication organized by IE University in collaboration with WAPOR (World Association for Public Opinion Research). 

How has electoral communication using online media evolved over the last five years? How much of a candidate’s budget does it currently use up? And previously? How much is spent on educating a candidate’s team to fully leverage online tools? 

The big shift in online campaigning came in 2004, with Howard Dean’s presidential primary campaign.  Previous online campaigns had tried to use the Internet to reach the mass public—particularly independent or swing voters, and those whose votes were up for grabs.  But this didn’t work, because these voters don’t visit political sites much and are generally not that interested in politics.  

Instead of appealing to swing voters, Dean’s campaign used his site to appeal to committed partisans, asking them to donate to the campaign or to volunteer.  This worked much better. In recent years there has been a gradual diffusion of this model to races at lower levels of US politics, and—less consistently—to general elections in other democracies. 

Online politics has dramatically changed the way US campaigns are funded—with Barack Obama being the most extreme example, having raised $500 million online.  But online campaigning has not yet done much to shift how campaign funds are spent.  Online spending is still a tiny portion of campaign budgets—a few percent at most. Barack Obama still spent most of his campaign budget the way all recent U.S. presidential candidates have: on television advertising and on paid staff.  

What are the key objectives of an online campaign? Mobilization or debmobilization? 

The biggest goal by far is collecting resources: recruiting volunteers and (in the U.S. case) raising money.  Energizing and engaging the candidate’s base of support is important but secondary.  Attempts to demobilize opponents are rare—and even more rarely do they actually succeed. 

A movement has emerged in Spain, I don’t know if you will have heard of it,  called #nolesvotes ( #dontvoteforthem), aimed at demobilizing votes for the main parties. Have you heard of anything similar happening in other countries? Have any such movements had an effect? 

I am not familiar with the movement.  Attempts by small parties to use the internet to organize are common and sometimes successful, though big parties still have lots of advantaged online that small parties lack.  But explicit attempts to demobilize opponents are quite rare.  They usually backfire: being told not to vote usually inspires anger and increased participation among the target population.  

Is the vote a new form of consumerism? 

Generally, no—the same person tends to behave quite differently as a voter than as a consumer.  People tend to maximize their gratification as consumers, but when voting they usually vote for policies they perceive to be best for the country as a whole.  Often that means voting against their immediate self-interest.  And most voters are too attached to a particular political party to seriously consider alternatives in the way that consumers do.  

In Spain, in a couple of months, there will be local and regional elections. What methods are used specifically for an online political campaign for a local or regional government, as opposed to those used for a general election?

 Actually, the surprise here is just how similar online campaigning techniques are at the national and local level. Online campaigning techniques tend to be pioneered in big national campaigns, but these techniques have trickled down to lower level campaigns in just a few election cycles.  

Are politicians aware of the new forms of communication among a large part of the electorate? Are they prepared for them? What is the main challenge in this respect? 

It is true that there new forms of communication are now ubiquitous—but political content is just a very, very small part of what people use the Internet for.  The biggest challenge of politicians is to break through the din, to have their messages heard in the first place.  This is a very hard problem, and so politicians mostly don’t try to reach undecided voters digitally.  Instead, they try direct mail, broadcast media, and just knocking on voters’ front doors.  

With regard to social networks and other tools, could you tell me how each can serve a political candidate? 

Facebook is far more important than all the other tools put together.  We have known for a long time that the sorts of political conversations that take place around kitchen tables, in bars, and in workplaces are an important way that citizens get mobilized.  Such conversations can even convince citizens to switch their votes. Facebook presents the opportunity to move these interactions among friends and acquaintances onto the Web. But it is hard for a campaign to manage these sorts of interactions effectively, and the best uses of Facebook are probably still to be discovered.  

In some Arab countries, Internet has played a critical role in toppling their governments. Is Internet merely a tool or is it a catalyst?  

The Internet—and especially tools such as Facebook—were important in setting the stage for the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (though probably not Libya).  But many other factors were at least important too, such as the youth-heavy demographics, rampant unemployment, and the emergence of Al Jazeera on television.  

We shouldn’t oversell the Internet’s role.  But talking about the Internet as a catalyst is not a bad metaphor: catalysts mostly speed up chemical reactions that are inclined to take place anyway.  If the potentially reactive components aren’t already in place, catalysts do nothing. 

Is Internet a relative guarantee of greater political freedom? Is it an unstoppable movement? 

The Internet does not come with any sort of guarantee—plenty of regimes manage to closely restrict Internet use, or even use online tools to find and punish dissidents.  But on balance, it does seem that the Internet has tilted the scales a bit toward political openness, even in regimes such as China that heavily regulate its use.  Over the long term, the Internet does provide reason for guarded optimism. 

(Spanish version): 

Matthew Hindman: “No debemos exagerar el papel de Internet en las revoluciones árabes, sólo es un catalizador”


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