Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Wrap-Up

Our two-day conference is just about to come to an end with an evening reception at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (you can have a live view through OII’s very own webcam…). Its aim was to try to make an assessment of the Internet’s impact on politics and policy. The presentations approached this challenge from a number of different angles and we would like to encourage everyone to browse the archive of papers on the conference website to get a comprehensive overview about much of the cutting-edge research that is currently taking place in many different parts of the world.

The submissions to this conference allowed setting up very topical panels in which the different papers fitted together rather well. Helen Margetts, the convenor, highlighted in her summary just how much discussion and informed exchange has been going on within these panels. But a conference is more than the collection of papers delivered. It is just as much about the social gathering of people who share similar interests and the conference schedule tried to accommodate for this by offering many coffee breaks to encourage more informal exchange. It is a testimony to the success of this strategy that the majority of people have very much welcomed the idea to have a similar conference in two years time, details of which are yet to be confirmed.

Great thanks to everybody who helped to make this conference happen, in particular OII’s dedicated support staff such as journal editor David Sutcliffe and events manager Tim Davies.

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Closing keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Our two-day conference is coming to a close with a keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger who is soon to be joining the faculty of the Oxford Internet Institute as Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation.

Viktor talked about the theme of his recent book“Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”(a webcast of this keynote will be available soon on the OII website but you can also listen to a previous talk here). It touches on many of the recent debates about information that has been published on the web in some context and which might suddenly come back to us in a completely different context, e.g. when applying for a job and being confronted with some drunken picture of us obtained from Facebook.

Viktor puts that into a broad perspective, contrasting the two themes of “forgetting” and “remembering”. He convincingly argues how for most of human history, forgetting has been the default. This state of affairs has experienced quite a dramatic change with the advances of the computer technology, data storage and information retrieval technologies available on a global information infrastructure.  Now remembering is the default as most of the information stored digitally is available forever and in multiple places.

What he sees at stake is power because of the permanent threat of our activities are being watched by others – not necessarily now but possibly even in the future – can result in altering our behaviour today. What is more, he says that without forgetting it is hard for us to forgive as we deny us and others the possibility to change.

No matter to what degree you are prepared to follow the argument, the most intriguing question is how the current state of remembering could be changed to forgetting. Viktor discusses a number of ideas that pose no real solution:

  1. privacy rights – don’t go very far in changing actual behaviour
  2. information ecology – the idea to store only as much as necessary
  3. digital abstinence – just not using these digital tools but this is not very practical
  4. full contextualization – store as much information as possible in order to provide necessary context for evaluating the informations from the past
  5. cognitive adjustments – humans have to change in order to learn how to discard the information but this is very difficult
  6. privacy digital rights management – requires the need to create a global infrastructure that would create more threats than solutions

Instead Viktor wants to establish mechanisms that ease forgetting, primarily by making it a little bit more difficult to remember. Ideas include

  • expiration date for information, less in order to technically force deletion but to socially force thinking about forgetting
  • making older information a bit more difficult to retrieve

Whatever the actual tool, the default should be forgetting and to prompt its users to reflect and choose about just how long a certain piece of information should be valid.

Nice closing statement: “Let us remember to forget!

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Campaigning in the 2010 UK General Election

The first day of the conference found an end in style with a well-received reception at Oxford’s fine Divinity Schools.

Day Two of the conference kicked off with panels on “Mobilisation and Agenda Setting”,“Virtual Goods” and “Comparative Campaigning”.  ICTlogy has been busy summarising some of the panels at the conference including this morning one’s with some interesting contributions on comparative campaigning.

The second round of panels included a number of scientific approaches to the role of the Internet for the recent UK election:

Gibson, Cantijoch and Ward in their analysis of the UK Elections drew attention to the fact that the 2010 UK General Election was dominated not by the Internet but by a very traditional media instead, namely the TV debates of party leaders. Importantly, they suggest to treat eParticipation as a multi-dimensional concept, ie. distinguish different forms of eParticipation with differing degrees of involvement, in fact in much the same way as we have come to treat traditional forms of participation.

Anstead and Jensen aimed to trace distinctions in election campaigning between the national and the local level. They have found evidence that online campaigns are both decentralized (little mention of national campaigns) and localised (emphasizing horizontal links with the community).

Lilleker and Jackson looked at how much party websites did encourage participation. They found that first and foremost, parties are about promoting their personnel and are rather cautious in engaging in any interactive communication. Most efforts were aimed at the campaign and not about getting input into policy. Even though there were more Web 2.0 features in use than in previous years, participation was low.

Sudulich and Wall were interested in the uptake of online campaigning (campaign website, Facebook profile) by election candidates. They take into account a range of factors including bookmakers odds for candidates but found little explanatory effects overall.

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Political Participation and Petitioning

This panel was one of three in the first round of panels and has been focusing on ePetitions. Two contributions from Germany and two contributions from the UK brought a useful comparative perspective to the debate. ePetitions are an interesting research object because not only is petitioning a rather popular political participation activity offline but also online. It is also one of the few eParticipation activities quite a number of governments have been implemented by now, namely the UK, Germany and Scotland.

Andreas Jungherr was providing a largely quantitative analysis of co-signature dynamics on the ePetitions website of the German Bundestag, providing some background on how many petitions attract a lot of signatures (only a few) and how many petitions a user signs (usually only one).

This provided a background for the summary of a comprehensive study on ePetitioning in the German parliament by Ralf Linder. He offered a somewhat downbeat assessment in that the online system has failed to engage traditionally underrepresented groups of society to petitioning even though it has had impacted on the public debate.

Giovanni Navarria was much harsher in his criticism of ePetitioning on the Downing Street sitebased on his analysis of the petition against the road tax. He concluded that the government was actually wrong in putting such a service onto its website as it had created unrealistic expectations a representative government could not meet.

In contrast Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos in his evaluation of local ePetitioning in the Royal Borough of Kingston made a case for petitions on the local level to have the potential to really enhance local government democracy. This is a finding that is particularly important in the light of the UK government mandating online petitioning for all local authorities in the UK.

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: What is our impact on the Internet? Keynote by Arthur Lupia

Arthur Lupia has just been delivering the opening keynote on our very own conference “Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment” here in Oxford. He started by turning on the audience:

  • What is our impact on the Internet?
  • Have we been as effective as we could have been in changing people’s beliefs and behaviours?

However, this wasn’t about benchmarking success of researchers into Internet and Politics but about the question why many well-intentioned projects – be it making people participate in politics, be getting across the relevance of your ground-breaking research or whatever – ultimately fail.

Arthur Lupia’s main argument that many of these well-meant enterprises do not take into account sufficiently how people are. How they are is – according to Lupia – mainly defined by three broad influences:

  1. biology
  2. social behaviour (e.g. how we learn etc)
  3. political contexts

So in order to successfully persuade others (in any benign meaning of course) he posits three necessary conditions (implying that they might not be sufficient):

  1. attention: as people have a limited capacity to pay attention, your message will only get through if they feel its urgency and relevance for them
  2. elaboration: relate your message to the audience. People will only listen if it is unique and highly relevant to them. Ways to achieve this is by making it local, concrete and immediate but also by making the desired change possible, making clear that the desired effect is within reach
  3. credibility:  Finally, credibility is key but this is not an absolute value but it is domain-specific. Credibility is bestowed on someone by the audience and depends on whether the audience believes (not matter if correctly) that you are knowledgeable and share their interests

See the summary by ICTlogy about the talk and the Q&A session. To follow the conference on Twitter on all over the Internet, look for the IPP2010 tag.