For all the talk about the messages, old and new, sent by the EP election results, the campaign saw no real innovation in political communication by any party. Whatever happened to the post-2008 realisation of the internet's salience?

True, public online commentary is crowded with partisan supporters. But this is using a new medium in an old way - an e-version of the phone-ins on partisan talk-radio. Oh, all right, there is one innovation: the invective and vituperation are now adorned with comic-strip punctuation.

Tintin's Captain Haddock would feel at home. Otherwise, the shrill point-scoring crowds out deliberative argument. Polarisation is exacerbated. There are no new forms of assembly or mobilisation.

The EP candidates used the internet largely as advertising space. Online petitions tried to mobilise voters but their form made clear that they, too, were thinly disguised adverts.

In all this Malta is not unique. But if the parties are serious about communication they will have to think harder about how to use the internet - not just about how to reach voters but also on how the medium shapes voters' thinking about their relationship to politics.

Let us not get carried away. A lot of hasty things have been said about how the internet will change democracy. About how it makes political activism easier; how it enhances deliberative democracy; about its bottom-up challenges to party hierarchies and elite opinion. Myths, all myths. Well, almost.

That is the convincing argument made by the US political scientist Matthew Hindman in The Myth Of Digital Democracy (Princeton). He has tracked nearly three million web pages, looking at how their links are structured, analysing how web users search for political content (and the role Google and Yahoo play) and scrutinising its major sources.

His conclusion is two-pronged. The internet has certainly enabled more popular participation and mobilisation. In 2004, many of Howard Dean's supporters were recruited after they attended a meeting they first found out about on the web. Mr Dean's record fund-raising, $52 million was due to the massive number of small online donations. By early 2008, Barack Obama sometimes collected more than that amount in a month.

That development could change the balance of influence that large and small donors respectively have on a candidate. The sums themselves make the news, giving momentum to a successful fundraiser. A similar dynamic might migrate to Malta if the campaign spending law is changed in the wake of the questions raised by the EP election.

Mr Hindman also shows why the internet has not, so far, given a greater voice to citizens. The most consulted sources of news remain the leading news organisations. Countless ordinary people are bloggers but, by far, the most visited blogs are written by bearers of social and cultural privilege: mainly white, highly-educated men - mostly Democrats - coming from the verbal professions of law, public relations and academe.

In the early years of the internet, intuition had suggested otherwise. Surely, the internet facilitated anyone's entry into the field of punditry. It enabled very narrow niche groups to be addressed. So how come is there a clear winner-takes-all pattern, where middle-sized popularity is squeezed out, to the great advantage of the news- and opinion-forming elite (and some advantage to very narrow-cast small sites)?

One reason is that politics occupies only a tiny proportion of internet eyeball time. A lot of what is available just goes unread. Plus, people use search engines in a very simple way: rarely going beyond the first page of items, usually choosing one of the first items on the list. Since the order reflects the most visited sites, the popularity of the top sites is reinforced.

The great availability of information, with no gatekeeper in theory, actually makes people want one in practice. Besides, when it comes to news and information management, the internet may dramatically cut distribution costs but in the US those are only around a third of total overheads. Massive investment in infrastructure and staff is still needed. Small enterprises cannot really compete.

This broad pattern appears to apply to Malta, not least the pyramid structure of news websites and blogs, where a few sites attract a massive share of the readership.

Where Malta is different from the US is that no party or candidate has yet linked up the structure of electronic social networking to the classic partisan structures. As Mr Hindman argues, the talent of a communicator like Mr Obama lies precisely in how he combined the steeply hierarchical campaign organisation with a looser multi-level network of volunteers.

He has changed how they think about politics because he did not just adopt a new political toy. He developed a social vision enabled by the technology. His strategy and success, of course, are embedded in a very American story. No Maltese political party can simply replicate it. Developing a social vision for a specifically Maltese digital society will be a true test of political freshness.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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