How the web is changing #dutchpolitics
by Ivo Vegter
Bos: Before I talk about how the web DOES influence Dutch politics, it’s important to see why the web CAN influence Dutch politics. Although the country is very small, it is very, very crowded. More than 460p/km2. One of the highest population densities of all Western countries.
The average Dutchie, based on no research at all, is tall, blond, and very attractive. When he’s not cycling, he drives an estate. Average salary of $46k. The average American is shorter, fatter, not as good looking, drives an SUV, but to make it fair, he earns more: $47k.
The profile is not THAT different. There’s another reason the average Dutchie is a really interesting test case for SxSW. He lives in one of the most internet-connected countries in the world. Global number one in broadband. 3G nationwide, really cheap. Internet is the #1 media consumption, more than TV, at 32h/week. Social networks are huge. About 3 million on Twitter (out of 16.5 million population). Facebook is 4 million. But that pales compared to our own “big yellow monster”, as Facebook once called it: Hyves, 9 million users. Internet is used by a representative cross-section of the population, in terms of income, education, and so on.
Imagine, given these figures, what the opportunities are for politicians to reach this huge online community.
In the Netherlands, we have a monarchy. We have a multi-party parliamentary system. Starting a party is easy. The average Dutch guy has about 10 or 12 political parties to choose from. Happily they don’t all end up in parliament, but a lot of them do. What do we vote for? We have liberals, christian democrats, social democrats, nationalists, liberal democratis, socialists, green liberals, christian socialists, orthodox protestant, and we have a party with two seats for animal rights instead of human rights. It’s proportional representation: 30% of the vote gets you 30% of the seats. You need a majority to form a government, which is 76 out of 150 seats. The bigger parties are getting smaller, and the small parties are getting bigger, so you need three, four or five parties to form a majority. So to lead the country, you have to make a lot of concessions. We’re designed by committee. The current government is actually a minority coalition with enough tacit support from others to remain in government.
Compared to America, we have a very splintered political landscape. As a result, we’re not very polarised, because it’s not very black and white. Compared to the US, we have more party animals.
This means there’s loads and loads of competition in the political system, which combined with the high internet use results in the fact that 90 of 150 members of parliament are active users of Twitter. Our largest TV station, RTL, once ran a national debate on Twitter, which resulted in the Netherlands owning 7 out of 10 global trending topics.
Four things that worked for us.
We don’t have classic examples such as the Obama campaign in the US. We don’t campaign the same way. In fact, if you go campaign to your neighbour, you’ll probably get a punch in the face in Holland.
1. Advise. The landscape is so splintered that the average Dutch guy doesn’t know who to vote for. As a result, more than 50% of the Dutch are “swing voters”. So we have a web app online, StemWeizer, which asks you questions and gives you voting advice. In one month, a third of the electorate did the quiz, and 50% of them say that they based their vote on this advice. The influence is so big that we now have competition in this area. Vote Compass, which launched in a few other countries too. You have a site which deduces your politics from what brands you prefer. There’s Dumb Voter, which presents you with images, like a tank, and you have to say “cool” or “scary”. Now we need a Vote Smarter Compass to help us choose which tool to use to help us choose who to vote for.
2. Measure. The average Dutch guy is extremely active on social media. They’ll give their opinion on anything. So a guy called Jordy van Gelder built a tool as student project that didn’t just measure all these updates and tweets, but made it a vote predictor, like a poll. It’s called stemr.nl. This was very experimental, but the results were very impressive. If a political party went up in the national polls, it happened earlier in this tool. Predictions based on Twitter ranked the parties VVD-PVDA-PVV-CDA. The real 2010 election results were VVD-PVDA-PVV-CDA. It didn’t get the number of seats right, and the smaller parties weren’t predicted in the right order either. Yet.
3. Convince. You can start a conversation with the voter. You can measure whether it’s positive or negative. If people base their political decisions on their internet use, how do political parties join that conversation? It had to be very personal. It shouldn’t give this idea that politicians were online but still in their ivory tower. They should be experts in their topics, but accessible to open dialogue. You don’t need a whole new concept for that. Millions of people on the web were already doing this: blogging. Each (good) blogger is an expert, is open to conversation, is accessible to others. So we created a party blog. Politicans themselves wrote the posts: completely personal, and relevant to what they were working on. “Why I did this and that”. Of course, that means it had to be open to comments. Some parties made it completely open. When the government fell last year, the party leader involved immediately posted a blog post explaining how and why he did what he did. It was unfiltered by the news media. Then others joined the conversation, including other politicians. What started as a typical comment war, suddenly became very civil, and other politicians began to understand this guy’s actions. Responding to rants and accusations was key. It often turned opinions and perceptions completely around.
4. Advertise. If you can’t get someone’s attention, then buy it. The average person is apolitical, uninterested in politics. An interesting case was Party One. They were so small, nobody gave them any attention. No TV, no newspapers, nothing. So they used a service called Next2News to put their positions up alongside issues that they had opinions about. A news report saying “government to raise taxes” would result in an advert: “not with us”. This began to influence journalists too, because they saw their own stories “commented on” by this kind of party advertising. Party One didn’t end up in parliament, but they managed to act just like a big party, or in fact any other retail brand.
The key is: just use the web the way everyone else is doing it. If people sell products or promote brands in a certain way, it will also work for political parties. If bloggers show they’re experts on certain topics and get high rankings and discussion and links, politicians can do the same. There’s a discussion going on about you, and you shouldn’t ignore that as a party, because your opponents WILL be part of the discussion. That’s changing politics.
What is the political risk of letting politicians talk unmediated, without the advice of their professional PRs? There are risks: people talk faster than they think, but the risk of not participating is much higher. There was a site in Holland called PoliTweeps which spotted deleted tweets and republished them, for example. (This Dutch article references PoliTweeps.)