I was interviewed last week by Liam Reid from the Irish Times about blogging and its effect on Irish politics. The article appeared in Tuesday’s Irish Times (21st March 2006) and is linked below. The “boggersphere” translated to “bogosphere” over the phone 😀
Prepare for the power of the blog
Are Irish politicians ready for bloggers? They look set to become a force in the next election, writes Liam Reid, political reporter
It sounds unkind, but it is probably fair to say that the average TD or senator is not the most technically literate of people. Spending any time in Leinster House, a journalist learns that most TDs prefer the fax or the telephone to e-mail; better still a chat over a cuppa or a pint. Irish politics is still very much a world where presence at a funeral rather than on the web is seen as important.
Mention the word “blog” and some TDs are likely to ask if it is the new brand name for Bord na Móna briquettes. The main political parties might have impressive websites and use e-mail as a primary means of communication, but that is about as far as it goes. While they put huge resources into monitoring newspapers and radio phone-in shows around the country, the same cannot be said of the internet.
Politicians, party officials and indeed commentators and journalists are mostly oblivious to the growing army of Irish political bloggers, who are determined to emerge as a force in next year’s general election.
Short for web logs, blogs are normally personal websites, often in a diary format, updated regularly with whatever takes the blogger’s fancy. They exist in the “blogosphere” – the wider online community of web-logs and bulletin boards, where users post comments, photos and video, and share information generally.
In Ireland, this community is keen to replicate the situation that emerged in the US during the 2004 presidential election where the blogosphere became a significant player. Bloggers and an online campaign are credited with transforming Howard Dean from an outsider to a front-runner in the Democratic nomination race. In September of that year, bloggers on a conservative site, “Free Republic”, collated evidence which suggested a report by CBS 60 minutes, which had questioned the military record of President George W Bush, was based on forged documents. Not only did they kill the story, they turned the debate on its head and onto the conduct of the media. The bloggers were taken seriously by politicians, and enjoyed accreditation and access usually reserved for media.
In Ireland the blogosphere remains on the fringes of political life. Dr John Breslin, the computer scientist who created Boards.ie, the largest Irish internet bulletin board, is convinced that blogging and the internet will become a factor in Irish politics in the future. “They’re psyching themselves up for next year, that’s when they hope they are going to get noticed.” He cites the explosion of blogging among the Irish internet community, often known as the “bogosphere”. When he began monitoring the number of Irish blogs last year, there were about 100. Now there are more than 1,000, he believes, with more than 140 of them devoted to politics and current affairs.
There are only two TDs who have blogs, Liz McManus of Labour and Ciaran Cuffe of the Green party.
On Boards.ie, politics is always in the top five categories for messages and posts, after computer technology and soccer. But they have still to make any significant mark on the mainstream.
Dr Niall O’Dochartaigh, a political scientist at NUI Galway, says there are a number of key elements that need to exist for the blogosphere to become a factor in political life, the first being internet access. Despite the country’s high-tech reputation, broadband penetration is still lower than in many other Western countries. He also believes there needs to be a major event that will motivate people to seek information on the internet, and again this event could be the next general election. The third element is for the blogs to be providing good quality information, analysis or debate that is otherwise unavailable.
However, even with these conditions, he believes Irish bloggers may never enjoy the influence of those in the US, because of the size of Ireland. “It is still very much about face-to-face contact,” he explains. “A candidate for the Dáil can reasonably expect to personally canvass a good proportion of the electorate. That’s an absolute impossibility in the US so voters can be much more reliant on the internet for information.”
Dr O’Dochartaigh believes, however, that blogging will become increasingly important in Irish politics. He cites the Dublin riots last month as one of the first events in Ireland where these elements came together. It saw bloggers and internet users post large amounts of information, including photos and videos, onto websites in the aftermath of the incidents, a lot of which was not available through mainstream media.
In Northern Ireland, one blog has emerged as an essential reference tool for politicians, journalists and academics, and that is Slugger O’Toole. Established in 2002 by Mick Fealty, an England-based researcher and journalist, it quickly became a hub for the debate on the future of unionism. Fealty credits this partly to the fact that in 2003 he and his associates printed a pamphlet on unionism, which was distributed to every politician in Northern Ireland. Quality is a key element, he believes, pointing out that the pamphlet was the product of more than six months’ research and interviews.
This is one of the biggest challenges Irish political blogs have to surmount if they are to become influential, Fealty says. “They need to be good at what they do if they are to have an impact. People are not going to come back to a blog if what you’re posting is unreadable.”