In the run up to the 9th June parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, the first ever election debates took place through Hyves and Twitter – on the same day. Hyves for breakfast and Twitter for dinner. The 30 minute debate on the Dutch social network Hyves (see earlier blog post on Dutch social media) was considered quite ‘relaxed’ and friendly, whereas its Twitter counterpart was perceived as rather stressed and direct. On Hyves the 50,000 viewers could not actively participate in the debate. Twitter did allow this in its 90 minute session, which subsequently led to mass chaos.
The jury is still out on both digital debates. On the one hand, the large interest of the public to participate in or follow the debate demonstrates an increasing interest of the people in politics in general. On the other hand, the efficacy and legitimacy of these communication channels for this specific purpose are, ironically, up for debate themselves.
As there were no webcams involved, how does one know whether the candidates are actually behind the computer and typing themselves? It may well be that the entire campaign team is gathered behind the keyboard. Some argue that these online platforms can only result in superficial debates as succinctness and speed are of the essence. Furthermore, while the perception was created that the public would truly be able to interact with the politicians it actually turned out to be a one-on-one between the candidates. On Twitter, the responses of the public sort of got lost in the crowd, whereas the candidates maintained visibility. People also complained about the limited time available for the debates.
Therefore, this first digital exercise should teach Dutch politicians to be careful in considering social media as merely a marketing tool. It is not a one-way street. Particularly, as its constituents increasingly consider it part of their right to democratic participation.
As to the effectiveness of these Dutch debates, I can only say: have a look at the number and length of responses shown in the Dutch news bulletin and see whether you find this dazzling. If so, it could mean several things; either these platforms are just not suitable for such debates, or the debate was not set up properly. Another possibility could be that maybe you are not as accustomed yet to these high speed digital channels as you thought you were. Or maybe, just maybe, your Dutch needs some work…