Internet and new digital technologies played remarkable, novel roles in the 2007 French presidential campaign. They produced unexpected shifts in daily operations of parties, which had to reverse their tactics as a result of information flows and the need to respond to revelations from unauthorized videos broadcast on the Web. There were forums and interactive debates online (Ségolène Royal’s team was the innovator in these), and campaigners were mobilized via instant messaging. In short, political communication departed from beyond the traditional paths of a party apparatus, public relations teams, and mainstream journalism. Activists online helped to create the content of political debates, and this, in turn, fed into the traditional media.
Royal’s Web site, www.desirsdavenir.org, created something that might be called political “collective intelligence.” She made “participative democracy” one of her themes, and this was the first time that a major national campaign reformed its own efforts in regular interaction with Web users. Through desirs, the Internet became comparable to a Swiss Army knife with multiple uses. “Wikis” (Web sites that can be modified by visitors) and listservs (computer software that sends mass mailings) made it possible to ensure the candidate’s political responsiveness to supporters and potential constituents. Forums were used for political arguments and to recruit new people to the campaign. Emails and instant messaging allowed for collection of more information and promotion of debate. All this was directed and synthesized by activists using the new technologies.
Surfers had quick access online to the candidate’s speeches, and were provided with space to comment on how to improve Royal’s program or to make suggestions to her political teams. Online activists created networks of blogs friendly to her and sifted through material on them. The Internet is often viewed as nothing more than a tool for the dissemination of massive numbers of messages, but Royal’s campaign showed how it can be an organizational tool and how communication can be transformed into activism, shaping decision making and reshaping the relation between a political leader and her supporters. In fact, tensions gradually arose between what might be called traditional activists—those involved in the usual party campaign mechanisms—and Web activists.
The Web’s presence in French politics began in a serious way in 2005 during the referendum on the European Constitution. Foes of the proposed constitution made innovative use of digital tools to present their positions and to respond to criticisms of their views in the media and from politicians. The Internet became a practical tool to bring people and efforts together, to broadcast ideas, all to promote a “No” vote. The government also used the Internet for a “Yes” campaign, but mostly as just another traditional top-down mass communicat...
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