Neck & Neck: Part 2 – The Digital Election

necknneckver3The age of internet debates is upon us.

Thursday’s Globe & Mail debate marked only the second time that a national political leaders’ debate was targeted primarily to online viewers. The elderly and digitally illiterate are finally relegated to CPAC where they belong.

In the age of cable cutting and online streaming, that may not sound momentous but we should take a moment to acknowledge the significance.

Staged debates have embraced the visual logic of the television since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. The famous story goes that radio listeners sided with Nixon while television viewers preferred JFK, for his sexy face, and that neither policy nor persuasion had anything much to do with it.

Thursday’s debate revealed something different. The second of our inaugural Internet debates operated on the logic of the internet more than on the primped and perfect visuals of television.

For one thing, there was more yelling at that “debate” than there is at a family Christmas. And not just yelling, but yelling over each other. Anyone even passingly familiar with a message board will tell you that this is a bonafide tradition of the online world.

Ordinarily, such a performance would seem uncivilized and chaotic, but, in the days after this debate, each party extracted shareable micro-moments of clarity for their particular audience.

Soundbites like Harper’s “old-stock Canadians” flub or Mulcair’s witty jabs made the headlines. Maclean’s went as far to assert that Trudeau’s “cocaine“-fuelled jabber won him the debate.

Such moments made clear that a single, coherent debate, in which candidates translate talking points to an audience of potentially undecided voters to assert their superiority over their rivals, was a thing of the past.

More important here than the magnifying and concentrating power of television was the production of political memes. The mass-producibility of any given political statement was its strength. And thus, it must be denied to the competitor — hence the yelling.

This was evidenced perhaps most of all by the Globe’s own assessments of the debate, which took up two central pages in their Friday, September 18th, edition. While their longstanding columnists debated the candidates’ performance in the relatively subdued second section, the focus of the analysis was given to their results on Twitter.

As if the candidates yelling over each other wasn’t enough, the voices of thousands of Twitter jeered on Twitter. Their snide remarks and fact checking were undoubtedly the more entertaining and informative of the night.

Elizabeth May herself took to Twitter, posting much-loved video messages to compete for auditory airspace with the shouting party leaders on their grey and Halloweeny set.

It’s all very revealing of a new kind of politics. And it’s one to which mainstream political leaders have been slow to respond.

The very hubbub around Elizabeth May’s exemption from the debate shows that Liberal, Conservative, and NDP leadership are convinced owning the “official” conversation still retains some power.

But there is movement in a more online, democratic direction as well. Much has been made of Justin Trudeau’s seemingly professional Instagram team, and equally of the Conservatives’ exceedingly poor Facebook presence.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest impetus for this transition comes from the media themselves. When the broadcast consortium lost its monopoly on staging the debates, once-struggling print media stepped into the fold, in the process empowering themselves in the process by at once crafting the narrative and realizing it.

The Globe & Mail, like Maclean’s, has run a series of articles before and after the debate, neatly weaving their take on the parties into a more or less coherent story. No longer passengers in the campaign plane, both publications have decided what they wanted from leaders, asked them the questions, and assessed their results more or less single-handedly.

In this sense, it’s hard to tell if we have progressed or regressed. Are we living through the beginning of internet politics? Or the return to paper politics?

There is at least one argument for advancement. With daily scandals ravaging campaigns, with micro-targeted announcements and with the humming online world watching, fast-thinking and improvisation are more important in our candidates than ever.

When Tom Mulcair was confronted with his disparaging remarks about Newfoundland, or when Justin Trudeau’s event was hijacked by protesters, it was their ability to appear authentic under sudden unexpected circumstances that won them the day.

Internet politics may not be here yet. But when it is, it will be a hell of a thing to see.

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