Since the 2004 national elections, the marriage of politics and technology has spawned thousands upon thousands of Web-based logs, giving voters another venue to seek out information on the candidates and issues that matter to them. The popularity of blogs has created an abundance of analysis and interpretation that millions of people can access. The space is infinite and so seems the dialogue.
In this 2007 local election season, candidates here are reaching out via the Internet, and at times, find themselves in spirited debate with voters. But how significant will blogs be in shaping the outcome of an election in a town of fewer than 16,000?
Zachary Cook, a political science professor at DePaul University, said regardless of the election, blogs and online message boards are another way for voters and candidates to connect.
“The blog and discussion forums are new developments and we are still finding out its effects,” Cook said. “They are good at creating specialized communities where you can talk about local issues, problems, or topics that usually won’t make the cut to a large circulation. Finally, they provide the community a sense of responsiveness and another way to directly communicate with their candidate who may feel otherwise removed.”
In Forest Park, all three mayoral candidates have their own Web sites, though Mayor Anthony Calderone’s is technically the only blog. In an eight-way race for commissioner, at least 25 percent of the candidates are using the Web to connect with voters.
“The advantage to my blog is that it is another media form where I can communicate my ideas,” Calderone said of his blog, forestparkfirst.blogspot.com. The site has been viewed 192 times since it began in January 2006. “No disrespect to the newspaper, but I cannot always rely on them to share my personal ideas because reporters will write what they want to write. So, the blog is an additional opportunity for citizens to pick through my own thoughts.”
Village council candidate Carl Nyberg said sustaining readership and keeping in touch with local residents is crucial. Nyberg runs several blogs including nyberg4commish.blogspot.com, which have received some 5,800 hits since June 2004.
“Society is constantly evolving and updating itself, and the discussion of ideas is very important,” Nyberg said. “If I did not have an audience, I would have moved on to something else.”
Nyberg is a former columnist for the Forest Park Review.
On the other side of the blog coin are those sites established by voters to which candidates may be invited to participate. At forestparkforums.com, a popular message board run by Fred Broecker, There are nearly 300 registered participants. As of Jan. 26, more than 10,500 comments had been posted with respect to everything from local elections to lost pets.
Participants are allowed to post anonymously on Broecker’s site, and presumably, under multiple identities. These types of sites have the potential to distort a candidates’ message, and arguably leaves them vulnerable to personal attacks, Cook said. Forestparkforum.com has received criticism from candidates for a perceived lack of decorum.
Patrick Doolin, a sitting commissioner and mayoral hopeful, said he has experienced mudslinging and personal attacks on the message board. To avoid such remarks Doolin created his own site www.doolinformayor.com and will provide an e-mail address if readers would like to discuss a topic.
“In the political arena, people have found ways to manipulate blogs and discussion forums,” Doolin said. “Many people have turned these tools into an opportunity for your opponent to take shots at you. It is impossible for a candidate to participate as themselves when everyone is participating as multiple identities. It’s an impossible situation.”
Calderone finds the same setback with forums. He said he used to visit forestparkforums.com frequently, but now visits the site only occasionally.
“I have some trouble seeing how productive forums … are when you see what kind of silliness is being written,” the mayor said. “It seems like people act more vile because they can hide behind their online identity.”
Village council candidate John Plepel said the mudslinging or personal attacks that may take place in online forums were not created by the medium.
“Blogs and discussion forums may increase the amount of mudslinging,” Plepel said. “But, it does not introduce this to politics. Mudslinging has always existed.”
Cook, who expects to receive his Ph.D. in political science this year, said that many of the candidates’ concerns and arguments against discussion boards are justifiable.
“Generally, my impression is that bloggers have agendas,” Cook said. “The quality of the discourse can evolve very quickly, as people can publish hateful things that cannot always be tied back to them.”
In addition to operating their own sites, Plepel, Doolin and Calderone have posted comments on the forum maintained by Broecker. Broecker did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Despite the hang-ups people may have, there’s no denying the popularity and perhaps the relevance of Internet politicking. Senators Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-NY, both announced their interest in a bid for the White House on Web sites earlier this month.
“Blogs and forums allow candidates to learn more from their communities since useful information can be passed,” Cook said. “One of their major goals is to contact the smaller percentage of constituents who deeply care about politics and want to get involved. It gives readers and participants a real sense of involvement, like grass-roots involvement.”
Plepel to employ a blog for a different reason: it is cost-effective. His blog, plepel2007.blogspot.com has received 54 hits since September 2006.
“Blogs are free,” Plepel said. “Any way I can find to get voters to know what I think and what I feel without spending money is something that I need to take advantage of because I am not spending any time raising money. Plus, blogs can create a lot of dialogue, which I feel a campaign should do.”