After finishing our 2006 study of political web campaigns, we became curious as to how American politicians’ campaign websites compared to those in other countries.  We looked at similar studies conducted in the UK, Germany, Australia, Finland, Hungary, and Sweden, and drew some conclusions:

Countries with parliamentary systems of government tend to have websites that are highly centralized.  In countries like the UK, Germany, and Hungary, very few individual candidates maintained websites.  Rather, parties would maintain websites containing all candidates’ information.  As an example, only 9 of 323 candidates in Hungary in the 2004 EP elections maintained websites, but all the parties had active sites.

Campaign websites worldwide are lacking in their interactive capabilities.  We found that, across the board, candidates are failing to take advantage of interactive strategies the Web provides users.  Despite the development of new technologies, websites have consistently remained “top-down” in nature, providing online versions of traditional campaign materials, and have been described as “old wine in new bottles”.  It seems that candidates may fear losing control of their political message and the content on their websites, and are thus reluctant to use resources developing tools such as bulletin boards, chatrooms, or comment functions on blogs and articles. 

In addition, receiving voter feedback or participation is not an important goal of candidates with campaign websites.  The website function valued most by candidates everywhere was the ability to disseminate information cheaply to a large audience.  In a survey conducted in Germany, for example, when ranking the importance of website functions on a scale of 0-4 (4 as the highest), “voter feedback” ranked a zero, while providing information to the public scored a 4.

The Internet can be an equalizer between large and small parties.  In countries with multi-party systems, such as the UK, there is often a great divide between the campaigning conducted between major and minor parties.  TV and radio ad time are distributed according to party popularity, and additional ads cannot be bought.  This leaves small and less-established parties out in the cold, unable to spread their message.  The Internet, however, does not face such regulations.  In addition, the low financial threshold and the ease of creating a website gives smaller parties a chance to reach out to voters when, the past, they could not do so.

Despite the advantages “cyber-campaigns” offer to political parties and candidates, there are several barriers that have prevented mass Web-campaigning.  The first is voter initiative.  Unlike traditional campaign strategies, politicians cannot push their message onto voters through the Internet, they must wait for people to seek out their websites and take action.  This leads us to believe that while cyber-campaigns may not change the minds of voters or attract new voters, campaign websites will, in fact, provide a tool for the organizing pre-existing support and calling advocates to action in a productive manner.  Web campaigning can also be limited by the degree of Internet penetration in a country.  It makes sense that cyber-campaigning would be more popular in, for example, Scandinavia or the US, where there are 76 thousand and 55 thousand Internet users per every 100 thousand people, than in Hungary, where there are only 27 thousand Internet users per every 100 thousand people.

Despite the high penetration of the Internet in Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Sweden, it seems that American politicians’ focus on fundraising and the highly individualized and candidate-centered nature of American politics has caused the United States to assume the role of trendsetter when it comes to utilizing the Internet for politics.  Due to new Internet strategies and the development of new Web techniques for campaigning, the Internet has cemented itself as a key campaign tool that candidates around the world simply cannot afford to ignore.

Read the whole article and view sources for data here.