Fahrenheit 404: Party attitudes to web archiving are a worrying sign for digital-era democracy

November of last year saw a spate of “cyber-revisionism” by both Labour and the Tories as the parties attempted to erase archived material from their websites and, in the Conservative case, from the wider web. To Josh Cowls and Mor Rubenstein this revelation is just another particularly pronounced example of the actual experience of political parties on the internet falling far from the original ideal. They explore how the attempts at online censorship may have backfired and some of the implications for democracy in the age of the internet.

The Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, sweeping away his party's web footprint?

The Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, sweeping away his party’s web footprint? (Credit: DCLG)

The British media enjoys nothing more than reporting on alleged hypocrisy. It was no surprise, therefore, to see recent coverage of the Conservative Party’s attempts to erase archived material from its website. Particularly ironic was that amongst the trove of speeches, press releases and videos which the party erased was a speech by David Cameron to Google, urging all Internet-age politicians to “let go of the information that we’ve guarded so jealously”.

Not that the Tories are alone in their cyber-revisionism, as it transpired. Other commentators noted that the Labour Party has taken a similar approach to outdated and thus potentially inconvenient material. It’s important to note Labour’s sins were arguably more ones of omission than commission: whilst not easily accessible on the party’s website, old speeches and press releases are obtainable via search engines and web archives. The Tories, on the other hand, took their efforts a step further by modifying their site’s robots.txt file specifically to ward off such web crawling services.

But viewed from a wider perspective, making such a cross-party distinction is just splitting hairs. Considered more broadly, this revelation is just another particularly pronounced example of the actual experience of political parties on the internet falling far from the original ideal. To put another way: it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The internet was supposed to democratise information, making politicians more accountable, from both within national parties and from without. Within a party, greater communication tools might have facilitated more of a role for the grassroots of a party in shaping the overall message and mission. On the outside, the reduced cost and increased availability of political information might have made it easier for the public to scrutinise the decisions taken by political parties when in government, and changes to their platform in opposition.

These trends have failed to materialise in practice. In fact, in the case of internal party mechanisms, the tendency may have been in the opposite direction: in a 2009 review article, Gibson and Ward cited evidence of “a move towards greater uniformity and centralised control”, and a focus on “campaign coordination” at the expense of “mechanisms for empowering members”. In the case of external scrutiny, the recent revelations about the Tory party speak volumes.

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New Internet, new challenges

However, as the Tories themselves may come to realise, cyberspace is a different place to how it was five or ten years ago. On ‘web 2.0’ and beyond, the Tories’ tactics may not work as smoothly. This is because unlike the websites of old, web 2.0 platforms allow a far more diverse and dynamic range of uses.

For example, blogging platforms and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have brought a new emphasis on our perception of time and history in our use of the Internet. Facebook’s introduction of the Timeline feature in January 2012, while controversial at first, appears to have altered our expectations about sources of information online. One study claims that the Timeline has greatly affected our social perception, putting change and uncertainty in the spotlight. In the case of institutions like political parties using Facebook, the Timeline feature allows users to interact and understand the evolution of an organization and key events in its history. Twitter’s news stream feature, which in contrast to Facebook has always been a crucial part of its user experience, similarly allows to users to understand patterns and ideas over time. History, then, has become a crucial component of online experience and engagement following the rise of web 2.0 technologies.

What does this mean in practice? In short, the 161,000 followers of the Conservative Party on Facebook are likely to be frustrated; the Tories face problems on other platforms because of their deletion of older material on their website. As of now, the party has not set about purging posts on its Facebook page from the same period. Want to see some of the pledges the Tories made ahead of the 2010 election? Just go to the relevant time period on the party’s (or leader David Cameron’s) timeline and you’ll find plenty of campaign themes and pledges there. But this introduces a deeper problem: on the Facebook page, users can find only teasers and slogans, not real content, as the links to most of the content are broken.

At this point, a user will either simply not want to interact with the page anymore or might alternatively try to look for information on a search engine. What will this user find? Perhaps not something the Conservatives necessarily want them to see. For example, a post from 2nd December 2009 has the following wording:

“David Cameron has just launched his own MyConservatives.com campaign. Visit http://www.myconservatives.com/campaigns/david-cameron-for-prime-minister to find out more and get involved!”

The link is broken, returning only a ‘404: page cannot be found’ error, and hasn’t been replaced with thenew webpage. Instead, a quick Google search with the words “my conservative” returns mydavidcameron.com, a spoof site encouraging users to create their own anti-Tory posters, as its fifth result. This is hardly very helpful, either to the prospective supporter or in particular to the Conservative cause. It’s also very much a self-inflicted wound: by breaking the link between their official channels across the web, the Tories have lost control over exactly what their own supporters will see.

Politics online: what is it good for?

Of course, above and beyond mere inconvenience, this episode raises more fundamental questions for the future of political information online. Far more significant than linking supporters to their intended destination is the limit the party’s purge has put on the ability of the press, opposition parties and the public to scrutinise the Tories’ performance since being in office. Accountability is after all a fundamental component of democracy, and the Tories’ tactics represent a genuinely regressive attempt to stifle this right to scrutiny.

There may just, however, be a small upside. Politically speaking, it’s possible that this revelation will prove another manifestation of the Streisand effect: by going to such lengths to cover their ideological meanderings, the Tories may have encouraged more attention to their track record than they would have by doing nothing at all. Already there have been attempts to recover some of the purged material, and no doubt the fruits of this labour will be reaped in the hyper-connected, frictionless world of social media. Hopefully, such efforts will continue ahead of the next general election in 2015, re-establishing the Internet’s role in promoting accountability – whether the parties like it or not.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not Democratic Audit, the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, on which it originally appeared, or the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/18nF7G8

josh_cowls (1)Josh Cowls is a Research Assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute, working to increase understanding of the promises and pitfalls of big data for social science research. Josh’s background is in researching political science questions in online contexts and working on political campaigns in the US and UK.

 

MorMor Rubinstein is an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute. Her Politics BA thesis from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem focused on the use of Facebook by the Labour and the Conservatives parties in the UK. She is an Open Data activist.  

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