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Democracy hits the Web, but are the ‘real’ voters listening?

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

The Wall Street Journal posted an interesting article on its Japan Real Time blog regarding the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP’s) beef with broadcaster TBS, whom it accused of bias against the ruling party on its “News 11″ program.

Reporter Toko Sekiguchi didn’t go into detail about the story at the heart of the LDP’s complaint, which had to do with liberalizing the electricity market. Instead, she used it as a springboard for discussing the relationship between the government and the press, which is both contentious and chummy. The points she made have been aired before, but I came away from the article with a clearer understanding of the advantage that politicians now have over journalists.

Much has been made in the U.S. media about whether or not the Washington press corps challenges whatever administration is in power because they believe that without access they are nothing. Sekiguchi says similar things about Japan, and shows how campaigning for the upcoming Upper House election has been energized by the lifting of restrictions on Internet usage. In the quest to address voters, candidates no longer have to count on the mass media for cooperation and can basically tell them to get lost.

The only problem with this strategy is that the older the voter, the less likely he or she is to use the Internet. In a Tokyo Shimbun survey, less than 18 percent of people over 50 said that they would use the Internet to study candidates. Another poll by the Asahi Shimbun didn’t distinguish by age, but 63 percent of the respondents said the Internet will “not really” or “not at all” affect their vote.

Since the survey was done by landline telephone, we can assume the respondents were mostly older people, who vote at higher rates than do their juniors. That’s one reason the government legalized Internet campaigning, to get more young people interested in the democratic process in the hope that they will go out and vote. Another perceived sticking point is that people tend to seek things on the Internet that interest them, so candidates may attract only voters who are already in their corners.

An acquaintance who told me she was relieved that campaign sound trucks weren’t making the racket they usually do credited the relative peace and quiet to the Internet. Now that politicians can talk to the electorate through social media, they don’t have to rely so much on “showing the bod,” as musician Lou Reed used to describe touring, but the personal touch is what the new access is all about. Candidates can be more revealing, more touchy-feely without leaving their offices.

According to a recent article in the Asahi, many first-time candidates don’t plan to show the bod at all. The newspaper interviewed hopefuls who are taking full advantage of cyberspace. One LDP candidate said he plans to exploit his acquaintanceship with Hiro of the popular R&B collective Exile by posting a video of him and the pop star having a discussion, anticipating that young voters will watch it and “become more interested in what I have to say.”

A New Komeito candidate solicited visitors to his home page who wanted to stand on his campaign truck and “scream” through a P.A. system, as if it were a common fantasy. He received 120 applications, from which he chose three winners. A Japan Communist Party member running in the Kinki region hired a cartoonist to make a manga of her life, which she will post on her website. It seems to be a common tactic within the party, as the JCP is also using a cartoon on its home page, which was averaging 3,000 hits a week before the campaign started. Since the manga went online the number has doubled. As one officer told the Asahi, “If we just put our policies up we know young people won’t look at it, so we made it interesting to get retweets.”

Despite the Internet dispensation, the election law remains strict, though a lot of candidates still seem to be unclear as to what exactly is allowed. One Upper House member campaigning for re-election has made a polo shirt with a giant QR code on the back. When a smartphone “reads” the code, it automatically goes to the lawmaker’s home page. Some believe this idea violates the election law, which prohibits distributing materials that contain anything except policy statements. Does a QR code qualify as “distribution”? A campaign worker told the Asahi that they plan to keep using the polo shirts “until someone warns us not to.”

Electronic mail is also tricky. Candidates and parties can send out information by e-mail, but voters cannot. An average person can’t send a message to his friends saying they should vote for a specific candidate (though he or she can do the same thing by phone), and when that person receives an e-mail from a candidate, he or she cannot forward it. This rule follows the standing prohibition against voters printing out campaign flyers and putting them in mailboxes. And while citizens can support candidates on blogs and home pages, they are required to provide contact email addresses. Similarly, tweets and comments must be traceable to real people.

Asahi doesn’t mention any of the candidates by name, but because the article describes the content of the home pages, they can be located through a web search. If a news outlet covers a candidate by name, it is supposed to cover all rivals equally and on the same topic, but even under such circumstances policy is addressed so vaguely that it ends up a secondary consideration. Personalities are paramount, and the Internet provides candidates with more resources to not only show bods (virtually, anyway) but probe minds—and on the candidates’ own terms, since they control the message and don’t have to answer challenges directly.

The LDP has made this aspect the core of its strategy, which is why it can bash TBS without even mentioning what TBS was allegedly complaining about. Last week, NHK had one of its pre-election free-for-alls in which party chiefs assembled in a studio and went at one another, though most went at LDP President Shinzo Abe, who sat there with a relaxed expression on his face, saving his best lines for his Facebook page.