THE potential of the internet for both established and would-be governments is huge.
The main demand in democracies is for politicians to sell themselves and their polices to voters. They aim to create a brand, which is driven by imagery.
America is by far the most prominent of the political powers to utilise the internet. The 2006 US primaries were referred to as the first ‘Internet Election’, a method which carried into the 2008 Obama/McCain Presidential stand-off.
One of the successes of the Obama campaign was how adept it was at capitalising on the internet, where one of the defining images of the largely personality-driven campaign was the famous ‘Hope’ poster.
The artistic style is not too dissimilar from propaganda art developed throughout the 20th century. The clear, visual and succinct imagery is both powerful and direct in portraying single leader (or in this case potential leader) of a country in a strong and powerful representation.
Although these were technically unofficial – created by street graffiti artist Shepard Fairy – they were spread across the internet and became the dominant image of the election.
It’s hardly unusual for politicians to big-up their self-image, but by allowing this image of himself to spread throughout the internet, Obama went further than any before him in associating a vibrant version of his image with a simple and optimistic message.
What is more difficult to say is what will happen next. Internet campaigns are here to stay but the 2008 Obama campaign basically utilised an old political tool, and brought it into the 21st century, the next stage will undoubtedly involve moving in new and unpredictable directions.
Other leaders have also utilised the internet. For many people Vladimir Putin has become the face of 21st century Russia. The images have been carefully crafted an image of masculinity and alpha-male dominance, with YouTube clips of him hunting, swimming, engaging in judo contests, and so on, all reinforcing these ideas.
The idea of this imagery is to cultivate political allegiances by putting forward a positive picture of the leader, however it can be equally effective in when used by the other side.
The ever-increasing aggression and malice seen in political smear campaigns has its images aimed at discrediting the political opponent, and the methods seen in the information age are becoming ever-more ruthless and petty, in some cases, such as the Obama-Joker image, literally to the point of caricature.
This level of character assassination is also currently most highly developed in American politics and have spawned copycats across the world. For instance, in Britain, the Blair “Demon Eyes” poster produced by the Conservative Party was widely condemned by many in 1997 for being too low taste, but the mouth-foaming tactics used in the “No to AV” 2011 campaign were fair game.
This portrayal of political figures could come at a price; the hatred generated by the ever-increasing extremes of images from all sides of the political spectrum is a highly self-reinforcing concept. The deification and countering demonisation of individual political figures hides comes at the price of ignoring the policies of political parties leaving role in the political debate.