Canadian Democracy in the Age of Blogging: Anatomy of a Campaign Controversy

14 Jan ’06

Note: Since its original publication this post has been updated with additional information provided by readers.

As the issue of Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte’s campaign fundraiser gained attention recently, it rapidly became obvious that blogging and related technologies can have a significant effect on democracy in Canada. We’ve seen this in the U.S many times, of course, and the WTO protest movement is quite sophisticated in its use of technology, but new technologies such as blogging, podcasting and the like have not yet played much of a role in the mobilization of Canadian voter involvement and opinion.

One week later and we seem to have the beginnings of an object lesson in just how quickly that can occur here. This is yet another example of the potency of these technologies as tools for the citizenry to exert meaningful influence on the political process. The democratizing power of technology – whether in business or elsewhere in society – is a recurring theme on this blog, so I’ve found the effect on democracy itself it to be quite compelling.

Briefly then, a recap (only roughly chronological) of how various technologies were deployed in this case:

    – Various blogs and podcasts educate the public in the policy issues raised by copyright law. This happens incrementally over a period of time. In Canada, this focuses on Bill C-60, which contains provisions that have attracted some controversy.

    – News of the Bulte campaign fundraiser is first published on the blog of Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He publishes several posts on the topic, one of which proposes a ‘copyright pledge’.

    – The original news is picked up by other blogs, including the widely read Boing Boing, after which it is disseminated with almost viral speed. Boing Boing eventually publishes several accounts of the issue.

    – Throughout the life of the issue the blogosphere publishes quickly and collaboratively, with the ideas of individual publishers provoking discussion, debate and the publication by others of alternative or supplementary information, and so on.

    – The news aggregation website Bourque, which is widely-read outside of the blogosphere including by the mainstream media, covers the story.

    The mainstream media notices the story and publishes information and commentary. Some of the mainstream media are also bloggers, and they blog the story. This attention lends credence to the issue. Still more bloggers comment on the mainstream media’s viewpoints. The issue continues to accelerate.

    – Parody pictures (see here, here and here) are published on the blog of Joey deVilla, a widely-read blogger who lives in Sarmite Bulte’s riding. He invites his readers to redistribute the pictures, and invites the creators of other parody pictures to send them to him for posting online.

    Michael Geist and David Fewer separately conduct investigations and analyses of campaign finance data from previous elections, and from Bulte’s fundraising history, and blog the results. This information spreads virally through the blogosphere, lending further credence to the concerns originally published.

    – Other candidates in the election notice the issue and begin to comment on it. As they do, the story gains further mainstream media attention.

    CBC radio interviews Michael Geist and Sarmite Bulte. The interview is made available online. Bloggers listen to it and publish their reactions.

    – The schedule for All Candidate’s Debates is made available online.

    – Online Rights Canada, a recently-established grassroots collaboration between EFF and CIPPIC, creates an online petititon on this issue. ORC also posts an extensive backgrounder on the issue, and posts the schedule for All Candidates’ Debates.

    – Sarmite Bulte’s Wikipedia entry is updated to include a reference to the issue.

    – Citizens attend and videotape an All Candidates’ Debate and record the candidates’ answers to the question of whether they will take Michael Geist’s copyright pledge. At the meeting, Sarmite Bulte reacts strongly to the issue. Her comments are recorded on videotape.

    – Joey deVilla posts the raw video on his blog and solicits help in compressing an extract and configuring distribution of the entire segment by BitTorrent. Collaboration quickly accomplishes these tasks.

    – deVilla publishes an extract of the video and a link to a torrent of the entire segment. Sarmite Bulte’s comments at the debate create a further controversy that itself is widely blogged. Mainstream media attention to the story continues to increase. deVilla later posts detailed notes of the entire Debate on his blog, together with annotations describing audience reactions to the candidates’ statements.

To state the obvious:

    – Blogging and RSS technology dramatically simplify the task of distributing information, and facilitate collaboration and organization. Together with e-mail and the web generally, large groups of people can be quickly informed, can share opinions and can individually and collectively act much more efficiently.

    – Before these technologies were developed, publication of this information by individuals would have been much more time consuming and expensive, would have had limited reach, and would have been largely dependent on the interest and political viewpoints of the mainstream media.

    – Virtually anyone can now easily and inexpensively record audio and video.

    – Compression and streaming technologies allow video to be easily streamed on the internet from anywhere to anywhere. P2P technologies like Bit Torrent lower the publisher’s bandwidth costs of distributing rich media, and accelerate the spread of the media.

(I’m sure there’s much more that I’ve missed.) As I’ve said before, this Internet thing might just catch on.

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