Viral politics

This article is about a simple issue: integrating XX century politics with XXI tools- using some approaches that I already (successfully) tested as part of my support to business and non-profit/cultural activities.

My approach was built on my own political campaigning experience in the 1980s (after being just an observer from 1970s of the internal machinery of political campaigns and their logistics), and my support the creation of online startups and websites.

Before discussing the topic, a brief introduction on why focusing on just the new channels is neither useful nor advisable.

Introduction: avoiding the “band-wagon effect”

As I was discussing today over skype, the country I was born in (Italy) has a strange “band-wagon effect” deeply embedded in its social fabric.

Probably it is an issue that we share with other countries, but I observed in both politics and business the same happening all across the country, so I will use Italy as my case study.

Almost ten years ago, I was told in London by shop keepers in Tottenham Court Road (where technology shops used to cluster) that Italians, Germans, and Japanese were their best customers for the new gadgets. Any new gadget.

We Italians usually have some early adopters, be it in technology or when talking about ideas, but most Italians wait to see what happens to the early adopters.

Then, everybody piles up. A funny cartoon from Bruno Bozzetto said that we Italians are not Europeans for many reasons.

Including: after an election, it seems that almost nobody really wanted to vote for the losers. We side with the winners.

And this attitude extends to technology adoption.

Just consider GSM phones: as soon as the GSM system was introduced in Italy (I think that it was 1995), I signed up, and for some time I did not have that many people to talk with, outside business.

Suddendly, also children had their own mobile phone, and, due to the vagaries of billing systems, most people had two or three SIM cards (Italy was the country where you could find special batteries allowing multiple SIM cards on the same phone at the same time, with almost any model).

The same happened with the Internet.

When I created my first website to show the usefulness of the technology in distributing knowledge within a closed community, also companies did not want to talk about it.

And a couple of years later I had to register my first domain ( outside the country, as the local costs were prohibitive.

Then, also bakeries had their own website, and in some regions the local authorities were giving up to 50k EUR (as a grant) to build a company website.

Outside Italy, probably the first structured, highly visible online political campaign using new media with worldwide visibility was the presidential campaign for Howard Dean, in the US.

Then, after the successful campaign of President Obama, in Fall 2008 everybody started jumping on the band-wagon (and not only in Italy).

In Italy, this was reinforced by the recent successful campaign for the governorship of Apulia from a Center-Left candidate who was sidelines at the primaries for a candidate selected by the HQ.

His campaign was heavily based on Facebook- and now, again, everybody sees the medium as “the” medium.

But as with past “technologies”, from print to radio to TV, being the first gives you more latitude, while the others have to be creative, and identify “niches”, integrating multiple channels to differentiate themselves.

The point being: if I am the only one using a specific channel, I have no competition.

If everybody does it, the “eyeballs” of potential readers have plenty of alternatives, and I need something else to differentiate from my competitors.

My approach: if everybody goes online, get back to the basics, and integrate online and offline communication.

Online and offline

If you read my blog once in a while, you know that since February 2009 I posted few hundred pages commenting about technology and its social impacts.

So, I will not repeat my “how to” suggestions (in politics or elsewhere) on online communication: I enclose a selection of the most relevant (and less technical) articles at the bottom of this article.

Instead, I will focus on a short discussion of what differentiates online communication from offline communication in a political context.

In my view, “political” is not just concerning campaigning for office.

I call “political campaigning” also advocacy- as any advocacy, e.g. by NGOs, is based on a political platform- be it social reform or monitoring the results of the actions of existing organizations.

Online communications usually start either as a consequence of prior offline contacts (e.g. meetings, events) or by direct online contact.

Sometimes the online contact is by referral from somebody else, by searching online after finding information in print, or just by accident, such as an online advertisement or a the results of a serendipitous search.

But what differentiates online communication is that any exchange is potentially permanently visible: it can be copied and shared with others before you delete it, and it can keep coming back.

Ask United Airlines (lost over 1bln dollars on the stockmarket due to a relaunch of an old article about its prior bankruptcy).

It is common to motivate people attending a political meeting by using extreme statements, statements that usually would not be written down.

Get used to it: this difference will eventually disappear.

Whoever will attend an event, will have a chance to record with something as common as a mobile phone what is said, and share it with friends- ending up, eventually, online.

I am not advocating political correctness- just consider everything you write or say as if it were broadcast on TV and then posted on (brick-and-mortar) walls.

Some politicians are thinking of following the few early adopters that shifted everything online.

But also the campaign of President Obama integrated both online and offline (classical) campaigning.

Sometimes this generated some incoherence- as when, XXI century style, the campaign promised to give the information about who was going to be the running mate on the ticket first to those who supported the campaign and were on the mailing list- with a slight change during the execution of the plan.

Integrating online and offline

In our era, where volunteer street-level politics is being replaced on a daily basis by online-only campaigning, and politics is becoming prohibitively expensive, it is important to focus energies where it matters.

Between end 2008 and Fall 2009 I helped a non-profit startup to integrate both online and offline activities, with the purpose of spending resources for their advocacy activities and on the ground, not to create a bureaucratic organization.

This is even more critical when the campaign starts with a tiny budget.

The basic mistake done by too many (and not only in advocacy) is giving direct control of the online channels to the “experts”.

Consider the online channels as if they were TV, or radio, or print: the “experts” know how a message is perceived by the audience of their channel, but you are the one who should define the content of the message.

My suggestion is: keep you online staff tiny- and focus on generating a two-way integration between online and offline activities.

As an example, you can give in meetings and events information about your online presence, ask to subscribe to your online channels, and then use the online channels to keep in touch with your audience in between events.

It is important also to use the online presence to give incentives to people attending your meetings, or to participate in the online activities, by managing different levels of “integration” with your campaign.

This seems plain vanilla common sense- and it is.

In my view, it is important to use the online channels also to give access to the information needed to organize local events, so that you can, again, optimize the use of your campaign resources, by centralizing what can be done centrally.

For example, local organizers could connect to an area online, insert last-minute information about their event, and be able to download information material (pictures, movies, etc) that is both the standard material, but also with information relevant to them inserted in the standard material.

This would reduce the cost, produce material relevant to the specific event, and allow a consistent image to be kept.

And printing? Well… more about that in few lines. I think that printing flyers and posters is really so XX century.

XXI century political campaigning material

In my late teens, I was used to write cyclostyle one-page documents (while part of the youth component of a European Federalist advocacy), and produce one-liners or other short material.

Actually- those experiences and helping my father to learn his lines (he was acting in theatre and radio) taught me few lessons.

First, the context, the tone, the audience define the perception of the words.

Second, most printed material is not read.

Third, political material could benefit from applying the first and second lesson- by reducing size and amount of information.

But this applies also in the first half of the XX century.

In the 1990s, mobile phones (at least in Europe) created another channel: text messages.

The only issue? Text messages are sent to people who cannot refuse the message- and maybe did not even give you their number (despite all the privacy checks-and-balances).

I remember that I was in Rome when Pope John Paul II died, and I received some messages with directions on were to go and the areas to avoid- also if I did not ask for those messages.

Probably those messages were considered security messages, and broadcast by each “cell” (the antenna) when you were nearby.

Still, it felt like an invasion of privacy.

Moreover- if you are in a crowded area, text messaging and mobile phones could simply, by design or accident, fail.

And this is something that everyone experienced when attending public events, such as New Year Eve celebrations, sport matches, or, why not, political events.

But the last few years added another channel: phone-to-phone communication using Bluetooth.

Actually, only recently marketing companies started using Bluetooth communication to deliver marketing material.

This usually requires a computer “broadcasting” the message to any Bluetooth-enabled phone nearby.

As an example, some movies started posting “live” Bluetooth messaging- if your phone has the Bluetooth active and open (i.e. without password), you just need to pass nearby to be “offered” a promotional video of the movie.

Instead, if you just pass by a political event, you are quite often offered the same, old, unreadable page overflowing with whatever the writer managed to fit in a single A4 page.

And, by accepting the page (do you ever read more than few lines?), you feel as if you are supporting whatever cause they support.

An interesting use of Bluetooth would be to allow the “broadcasting” of a digital version of a flyer, maybe as a short video or music jingle: the passers-by would still need to confirm that they accept, but it would be more discrete- and faster.

Once on the phone, the recipients could forward the digital flyer to friends.

And, also in crowded areas, there would be limited or no risk of disruption, as the communication would be phone-to-phone.

Of course- it would require being a little bit creative, so that people would be interested in receiving and keeping/forwarding the message.

But if you print flyers, probably at the end of the day the flyers will be trashed.

The lifetime of a digital flyer is a little bit longer- potentially permanent.

I already wrote an article about the timeframe of online communication (see in the links at the end of the article), so I will discuss here about something else: identifying the right timeframe for your message.

As I discussed above, a digital message is potentially forever.

Therefore, you should tailor the message to the main timeframe, e.g. focus on today’s event, but then remember to always add something that re-asserts your “brand”.

It could be your motto, logo, a link to your website- anything you consider worth having associated with you.

Moreover, a digital flyer could become part of something else.

The viral element

Beside being potentially permanent, digital communication is like any other computer file.

If you know how, you can use an existing file (your digital flyer) to create something completely different (e.g. a parody, including some of your original material).

As usual: if you cannot beat them, join them.

Or, as an Italian politician reportedly said: provided that they talk about you, it is fine.

So, do not even think about controlling the spin on the Internet, once you use new media or viral messages.

Simply- put up a brave face for a certain amount of humour or digital venom coming your way.

See the upside: nobody bothers to parody somebody invisible.

And taking gently a parody will reinforce the loyalty of those agreeing with your message, and often venomous parody and attacks will backfire, helping to tilt some undecided toward you.

As your message could probably keep spinning around, if you manage properly your online communication, anybody spreading either the original message or a parody will need to use some of your original material.

Learn from product placement: every frame should contain references that will allow anybody willing to access your original message (e.g. a website link).

But the change in the lifetime of your messages (online, or, via recording or other means, offline) will also bring another consequence: forget about using negative spin.

Because attack ads, negative messages about your opponents passed through “independent” sources, and all the other assorted tricks of the trade will have the same expanded lifetime.

If you spin something negative around… it will stick around, and resurface when you less need it

Usually: when maybe you are looking for common ground with a former opponent.

Program or “vision” differences are common parlance in any country.

Coming from a country where flexible coalitions have been part of everyday political life since my childhood, I do expect that any enmity is a temporary issue linked to opportunity.

Also with strong political differences, there is room to work jointly on specific initiatives- but if everytime you meet jointly, the negative spin resurfaces, it could become impossible to obtain support from the political base.

A final touch: re-spin

It could seem a contradiction of what I wrote before- but it is actually an essential element.

If you use the approach described above and in the referenced articles, it is only natural to build a “monitoring” element- looking what happens to your messages after you release them.

As well as looking at the messages issued by your opponents.

I used the same approach with any company I supported in activities that involved competitors (startups, pre-sales, consulting, etc).

Observing what others do is part of the monitoring.

But, in politics as well as in competitive sales, sometimes your critics and those producing parodies, to say nothing about those posting comments or re-launching the parodies or your original messages, are your best allies.

If your message is or seems contradictory, you will not hear it from your followers.

Also: any criticism reveals more about those expressing criticism, their viewpoint, and their own motivation, than you can learn by just observing the source of the criticism.

Therefore, you can use this information to identify patterns that could be followed by them should you introduce a new initiative.

A shortlist

Since february 2009, I published in this blog almost two hundred postings.

I enclose here a list of those more relevant to the subject of this article.


Political campaigning in the XXI century

Gated communities

instant gratification politics

XXI Century libraries and search engines

100th post! signposts for XXI century visibility- a directory

Online identity and you: a Facebook experiment

DIY: cross-media without a budget

Equal opportunity elections

Communicating online/offline: a quick reference

The Biology of Politics

Considerations on political communication) on what is changing in political communication

The timeframe of online PR


Anybody writing about integrating technology in society (and its organized expression, politics) has political positions.

I stick to Plato’s dictum, assuming that “political” means “of the poleis”, i.e. of the community: therefore, I prefer to add to the list of the “how to” articles also a list of some postings where I expressed my own political positions as derived from my busines and political experience.

Do you recognize change?

Cooperative systemic risk management

Preemptive lawmaking & expert systems

Everyday politics

My take on post-i2010

Taxing the digital economy:blueprint for a virtual nation?

Biometrics and you


A borderless world

Micronews & citizen’s audit) about the side-effect of the direct access to media

Re-inventing Europe

Common Agricultural Policy and sustainable development

Cultural Sustainability & new media

25 aprile 2011

Integrating welfare


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s