Election Campaigns Finally Enter the Internet AgePolitics
There is considerable interest in Japan at present in the revision of the Public Offices Election Law to lift the ban on the use of the Internet for election campaigns.
On April 12 a bill to revise the law was unanimously approved at a House of Representatives (lower house) plenary session. The bill is expected to be approved by the House of Councillors (upper house) as well, paving the way for the Internet to be used for the first time in Japan as a campaign tool, starting with this summer’s upper house election.(*1)
Revision Makes Net-based Campaigning Possible
For the lower house election held in December 2012, the leaders of the main political parties participated in a live online debate, which was widely covered by newspapers and TV news programs. It is clear that these traditional media outlets, which have been the ones tasked with conveying information on candidates during an election campaign, have a strong interest themselves in the issue of lifting the ban placed on Internet campaigning.
My own view, though, is that things will not go so smoothly for online campaigning, nor will it exert a major influence on the upcoming election result.
Since 2005 I have been involved in running a news website and setting up online forums for people to debate ideas. Here I would like to draw on this experience to consider some of the tasks that Japan will face after the ban on Internet campaigning is lifted, beginning by considering election campaigns and political activities.
Under Article 142 of the Public Offices Election Law, it is forbidden to distribute any printed or visual materials (other than postcards or flyers) as part of an election campaign during the period from the official announcement of candidates up to the day of the election. The crux of the revision to the law is that it makes it possible for election campaigns to utilize the Internet, which had previously been banned as something that falls under the category of “printed or visual materials,” during the election campaign period. This would make it possible for political parties, candidates, and general voters to update Internet sites, such as blogs or Twitter and Facebook accounts, during the election campaign and for parties and candidates also to use e-mail to diffuse information.
The term “election campaign” is defined by the law as the “campaign aimed at securing the election of a specific candidate.” This pertains, in other words, to the diffusion of information directly aimed at encouraging people to vote for (or against) a particular candidate.
Risk-averse Political Debate
Lifting the ban on Internet election campaigns will make it possible for campaign staff to issue online appeals to voters on behalf of their candidates, or for such appeals to be made among the voters themselves. But this also raises the possibility that new types of negative campaigns aimed at discrediting political opponents will emerge.
Concerns about such negative tactics have sparked a fierce debate in the Diet about whether the right to use e-mail during an election campaign should be granted to anyone other than political parties and their candidates. Given the considerable anonymity that Internet debate allows, some are also worried that it may prove difficult to prevent the diffusion of false information through slander, smear tactics, or identity theft.
Looking back on the process that has led up to the revision, one gets the sense that the discussion has focused too much on risk avoidance and problem prevention.
Under the Public Offices Election Law, information transmitted that does not fall under the “election campaign” category can be labelled “political activity.” As far as my own research reveals, nearly all Diet members have participated in such activities online by setting up official websites, e-mail newsletters, Twitter accounts, and the like in order to convey their political views and showcase their initiatives. In this sense, even though Internet campaigning has been banned up to now, politicians have in fact been using the Internet to promote their political activities. During the official election campaign period, however, politicians have halted such activities as well so as to avoid the risk of violating the Public Offices Election Law.
Voters Seek Candidates’ Frank Opinions
For voters, the primary benefit of lifting the ban on Internet campaigning is the chance to directly obtain information from candidates. Unlike print or TV content, with space or time constraints, online information allows a candidate to present uncut opinions. And the use of social media offers the added attraction of two-way communication, giving voters a more direct way to convey their opinions or criticism.
From this perspective, the important thing in the new age of Internet campaigning may come down to how effectively politicians can introduce to their campaigns the sort of online political activities that they have already been engaging in up to now.
One gets the impression, though, that the related issues now being considered among Diet members and others have tended to focus on security rather than on how everyday online political activities seen up to now can be extended to, and effectively used, during election campaigns.
Japanese voters, for their part, are looking to the Internet as a way for candidates to offer their frank opinions, rather than the conventional election campaigning that involves politicians being driven around in a van equipped with a loudspeaker and simply repeating their own name—over and over—and asking for voters’ support.
As things stand, it seems to me that neither candidates nor voters have yet been able to fully reap the benefits that online activities have to offer. This is why I stated at the outset that Internet campaigning is unlikely to have any great impact on the upcoming upper house election.
Maximizing Internet Campaigning
Judging from the history of the Internet up to now, one can easily envisage that the further development of technology and devices will result in a succession of new, convenient communication tools with features unimaginable today. If that progress continues, it seems unlikely that the current discussion of ways to avoid the risks and problems will result in the formulation of clear standards.
Politicians and others already have access to adequate tools for diffusing information, such as blogs and other sorts of social media. Moving forward, it will be necessary for Diet members and candidates to build up the know-how to appropriately convey information, and voters themselves will also need to understand the spirit of the legal revision lifting the ban on Internet campaigning and behave accordingly. It seems unlikely that the campaign for the upcoming election, on its own, will serve as an adequate training ground in this respect.
The governing spirit of the Public Offices Election Law up to now has been to ensure a level of fairness between the candidates in an election campaign. One can expect that the first election held under the revised law will bring to light a mountain of new issues to address and problematic cases where it is difficult to interpret the law’s intent or make an appropriate judgment. The task after the election will be to figure out how to arrive at flexible legal decisions. Let’s hope that everyone involved—Diet members, government bureaucrats, and the voters themselves—do not lose sight of the need to maintain a forward-looking stance when debating the use of the Internet.
The issue of the Internet involves more than just current Diet members and candidates using it to diffuse information during a campaign. The media will also need to make use of the Internet as a forum for gathering, organizing, and comparing that information in order to inform voters. In my next article, I will take a look at those sorts of initiatives, with a focus on the current state of Japan’s online media.
(Originally published in Japanese on April 12, 2013.)
(*1) ^ The reform measure did in fact become law on April 19, when it was approved by the House of Councillors.—Ed.