COMP6037 – The Importance of Politics to Web Science

The Importance of Politics to Web Science

Web Science is a new and exciting research field, and has been created in response to the massive impact that the modern Web has upon our lives. Web Science takes an interdisciplinary approach – i.e., not just studying the software or hardware that creates the Web, but tackling what the Web is, and what influence it has, from a broad range of perspectives.  These include, but are not limited to, areas as diverse as archaeology, sociology, psychology, economics, and many others. In this blog post, I will be focusing on how politics is important to Web Science. Politics is a particularly interesting topic in relation to Web Science because of the immediate impact that political issues and elections can have upon society.  I will be addressing the following two inter-related questions:

  1. Does the Web influence how the government interacts with the people?
  2. Does the Web influence how the people view the government, politicians, or political issues?

I will address these questions in turn, highlighting how they have been studied so far. I will then close with some concluding thoughts and suggestions for additional reading.

 

Does the Web influence how the government interacts with the people?

Existing Services

The Web is a fantastic service for allowing large numbers of people to interact with the government. To date, the government has made a number of attempts at collecting and collating vast quantities of information and presenting them online. One good example of this is the Directgov website. Though it is clear that this website is comprehensive, it is not necessarily very easy to navigate, or very easy to use to find information.

Directgov: A website containing more government and local council information than anyone could ever need, but it is not well-organised

A more direct method for the government to interact with people comes in the form of petitions and requests. There is an official government e-petitions website where petitions can be put forward and signatures added. This has already resulted in direct action from the government as a result of petitions which were widely supported. For example, Alan Turing, the famous computer scientist, was given a public apology by Gordon Brown for his treatment prior to his suicide.

Turning to local government, many local councils now allow for online services such as online commenting on planning applications, which again makes it easier for the local population to have their voices heard in how their local area is governed.

Challenges for the Future

It remains an open question whether the government-provisioned websites such as Directgov are actually effective. To date, there has been relatively little research done to examine how easily these sites can be navigated, or the impact that they have. Furthermore, there are broader issues that need to be considered in relation to these sites. Although Internet access is now widespread, there are still many individuals who are not able to access the Internet: this is known as the digital divide. As can be expected, anyone without Internet access will be left behind in terms of being able to utilise government websites and the services that they have on offer; as a result, they will be unable to make their voices heard (e.g., with petitions).

Elsewhere, a new form of government-interaction website has begun to emerge, in the form of TheyWorkForYou.com. This site is aimed at enabling people to discover exactly what their local MPs have been doing, including how they have been voting, what debates they have attended,  and so on. Though sites of this type are rather new and have not yet been studied in depth, the claims made by the charity which runs the site (mySociety.org) are impressive in terms of getting the government and people to interact (see Figure).

What does this mean to Web Science? The fact that people can now directly interact with the government online, and find out what the government is doing suggests that this area of politics is important to Web Science, though, as already noted, much of this remains to be researched in full.

mySociety runs many of the UK’s democracy websites such as TheyWorkForYou.com and FixMyStreet.com

Does the Web influence how the people view the government, politicians, or political issues?

Going Social

The rise of social websites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) has had an influence on how people view the government, politicians and political issues. There are many ways in which people can be reached with political-related information on social websites, including both from their friends commenting on political issues or linking politics-related links from elsewhere on the Web. People can also directly follow politicians’ accounts as well. During the 2010 elections, David Cameron was one of the first to use online videos for advertising as a politician on his YouTube channel, WebCameron. Nick Clegg had daily videos on YouTube on the LibDem channel during his campaign and Gordon Brown also appeared in his own YouTube videos via the official Number 10 channel. Each had their own take on the videos trying to show them in different lights, i.e. David Cameron had home-movie style shots showing him washing up like an ‘everyman’. This was an important component in him reaching out to the masses, rather than appearing as a wealthy member of the upper-class.

 

Future Challenges: The Good and the Bad

With the rise of social websites, we have seen both the good and the bad in relation to politics. It has been argued by many that without the availability of social networks to allow rapid organisation between large numbers of individuals, the revolutions that took place in the Middle East during 2011 would not have been possible. This demonstrates clearly how politics can be very important indeed to Web Science. However, it was also argued that social websites were also used by rioters in the UK to organise where to meet and what locations to target, though there was also a positive side to this particular story. The London riot clean-up operation used social networking as a platform to organise a clean up after the riots. This shows that mass unrest can be organised and cleaned up by the mass organisation of people through social networking.

Elsewhere, politicians keen to embrace the Web have also found that their efforts do not always go as planned. Gordon Brown’s video of the MP’s expenses scandal was highlighted as bad PR, not for its content, but because of the awkwardness of Gordon Brown during the video. A spoof video of Gordon Brown‘s video was created and the message from his video was lost proving that putting things online does not always work out well.

Concluding Remarks

Much of what has been discussed above focuses on conjecture of suggestions relating to cause and effect, or assumes that certain websites are effective without a great deal of hard evidence. Though from these examples it is clear that the study of politics is important to Web Science, and has much to teach Web Scientists, there are still a large number of unanswered questions. For example: How many people visit Directgov? Do they find it useful? To what extent does Web use actually correlate (or cause) voting for one political party over another? Addressing these questions is made particularly difficult as the Web is developing so rapidly, and, furthermore, much of the answers to these questions are bound up in blogs, Facebook statuses and Tweets of many millions of people, which are hard to access and difficult to examine in a scientific manner.

Further Reading

Cohen, S., & Eimicke, W. (2003). The future of e-government: A project of potential trends and issuesProceedings of the 36th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEEXpore database.

Towner, T.L., & Dulio, D.A. (2011). The Web 2.0 election: Does the online medium matter? Journal of Political Marketing,  10, 165-188.