Exploring the Legal Implications of Social Media in the Election Process

The CBC reports that Quebec’s chief electoral officer is studying new rules on “cybercampaigning”:

As the internet plays an increasingly important role in political campaigns and elections, rules and laws need to evolve in order to keep the playing field level, said Quebec elections director Marcel Blanchet.

The province’s election office is studying how the internet has changed campaigning and electioneering, and will come up with recommendations to modernize current laws, Blanchet told the Canadian Press.

(The original story by La Presse Canadienne is here. By the way, the first new rule should be to ban the term “cybercampaigning”. But I digress.)

(TV election coverage) And in the seventh congressional district, it's Chen defeating Tavistock, 29,547 Facebook friends to 25,804.That’s one mighty angry hornets’ nest Blanchet is poking, and I’ll be surprised if the comments on that CBC story don’t rapidly fill up with cries of outrage, echoed in the blogosphere. Let me try to channel a few of them in anticipation: “Quel n00b! You can’t regulate the Internets!” “Yet another self-important bureaucrat who doesn’t get it.” “It’s censorship! Soon you’ll have to register your blog with the government!”

Admittedly, election officials have sometimes been more than a little hamfisted in their initial efforts to come to grips with the web. (That “register your blog” thing isn’t as wacky as it might seem, given the experience in B.C.) But that doesn’t mean there’s no role for oversight and even regulation when it comes to digital campaigning.

For instance, you could make a very strong case for rules that require a campaign to clearly identify any video material they produce as fodder for a supporter-created-media push. Or a prohibition on phony grassroots blogs, purporting to be written by ordinary voters while being underwritten by a campaign. Or a requirement that anyone being paid by a campaign to blog on their behalf to disclose that fact clearly and prominently.

But how about when third parties with deep pockets jump into the pay-per-post arena? Or crank out slick video clips – either as standalone material or as mashup bait? Suppose it’s not overtly in support of a particular party or candidate, but advocates a policy stance clearly associated with them? Recent legislation sharply limits that kind of spending in many Canadian jurisdictions when it comes to traditional advertising; it’s not a big leap to apply those caps to the online realm.

Then you come to individual bloggers, especially those with significant audiences. We’re fond of thinking of blogging as little different from talking to your neighbour over the fence, or writing a letter to the editor. But if you’ve put, say, Google Ads on your blog, you’re in a sense saying that you have an audience whose attention has a tangible value – and that you’re willing to market that attention. So if you direct that attention to the promotion of a candidate or party, are you making a donation in kind?

Does this feel like the counting of so many angels on the heads of so many pins? Maybe. But there are real issues underlying these questions… and a real reason for election spending restrictions. Wealth and power tend to walk hand-in-hand; limiting the influence of money helps to avoid magnifying the concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy.

The ability to reach large audiences has traditionally skewed toward the wealthy and powerful – but social media is eroding that. With audience comes influence… and the interest of regulators. And if the parade of enthusiastic amateurs who are creating so much of social media are unprepared for that interest, well, regulators (and especially their legal environment) are at least as unprepared for dealing with social media.

A little ambiguity gets Google off the hook over Taiwan

You may well deal with user interface issues all the time – but have you ever handled one that had geopolitical implications?

Consider Google Analytics, the free web analysis tool that gives you an in-depth look at the people coming to your site and what they're doing there.

Google Analytics includes a Map Overlay view that shows you where in the world your traffic is coming from. (Mouse over a particular country, and it lights up – accompanied by a little box with the country name and the number of people who surfed your site from there.)

Simple enough. But Google has a problem: Taiwan.

Map showing locations of China and Taiwan

China has never recognized Taiwanese independence, and insists on seeing that territory as a breakaway province – with the implication that it will one day return to the fold. And as a condition of diplomatic relations with other countries, China insist that they not formally recognize Taiwan's sovereignty. (Taiwan, for its part, refers to itself as the Republic of China, and claims as its territory Taiwan, Mainland China, northern Burma and various sizable chunks of other countries.)

So most of the rest of the world walks on eggshells when it comes to Taiwan's status. And as a company enthusiastically doing business with China – a relationship that has drawn some heavy fire from Google's critics – Google has to follow suit.

Which brings us to Map Overlay. Very handy tool, that. But if you're Google, how do you handle displaying results from Taiwan – potentially useful to your users, but inflammatory to a government whose goodwill you rely on?

Have a look at Google's solution. This is what the analytics map looks like when you drill down to Eastern Asia:

Map of East Asia

Here's what happens when you mouse over China:

Map of Eastern Asia, China highlighted

China lights up – and so does Taiwan. The box identifies the country as China.

But before you conclude that Google has knuckled under to pressure from Beijing, move your mouse over Taiwan:

Map of Eastern Asia with Taiwan highlighted

Again, China and Taiwan are both highlighted … but now the box identifies the country as "Taiwan".

At first, I thought this was a bug. But now I'm inclined to believe this is Google's face-saving solution, one that gives users the information they're looking for while telling two governments with diametrically opposed viewpoints, "You're both right!"

Now appearing on ReadWriteWeb

ReadWriteWeb logo

A little horn-tooting here, because I'm really excited about this: Noise to Signal, my cartoon about social media, has been picked up by the fine folks at ReadWriteWeb. Here's editor Richard MacManus' announcement:

This is courtesy of the wonderful Rob Cottingham of Social Signal. Rob runs a regular cartoon blog called Noise to Signal, in which he puts in graphical form some of the big questions of the social web. We thought we'd trial some of his cartoons here on RWW, especially in the weekend when you may not be in the mood to read long text posts. Let us know what you think.

W00t and FTW, as the cool kids say. (And not just because RWW is just about my favourite source of info on the latest Web 2.0 news; I'll be working alongside – in the virtual, not-actually-being-there-but-my-pixels-are-next-to-his-pixels sense – Marshall Kirkpatrick, a lead author at RWW, and a friend from past NetSquared and NTEN conferences.)

NetSquared: Alex on social media and conversation as the engine of change

Jed SundwallJust a heads-up: there’s a great interview over on the NetSquared web site, where Jed Sundwall (that’s him on the right) talks to Alex about the work we do, and how social media can help organizations join the big conversations that can lead us to a sustainable, socially just world:

I used to do a lot of policy consultation online and I moved away from that because I felt like I was more called to do direct social change work. I’ve since come full circle because I’ve concluded that, at the end of the day, meaningful change only comes from conversation. Conversation is the agent of change. What social media does beautifully is enable large scale conversations across many dimensions—across huge distances, across gaps in time (through asynchronous communication), across personal differences. Those conversations are really key to enabling change. Our challenge is fostering conversations that build social capital.

Make your work support your life’s goals: Jeff Balin workshop on Saturday

Considering how much of our time we spend at work, it's shocking how many people feel they aren't just in the wrong job, but the wrong career. They're talented, passionate people, but they aren't finding real meaning in their work.

Or maybe they have found meaning – but they're hungry for more.

If that sounds like you, and you live in the Vancouver area, you'll want to look into Jeff Balin's workshop this Saturday. Jeff's a leadership coach specializing in work alignment: helping "individuals, teams and organizations align personal and professional efforts to the deepest sense of who they are, bringing out their very best."

His work with us has been nothing short of invaluable and transformative over the past few years – which is doubly remarkable, because Jeff is also one of the most self-effacing people you'll ever work with.

And if money's an issue, there are scholarships available, so don't let the $195 fee keep you from checking this out.

Here are the details on the workshop:

Where:  Baldwin House, on the shores of Deer Lake, Burnaby

When: Saturday, June 21, 2008 – 9:30 am to 6:00 pm

Price:  $195 (price includes taxes, lunch and refreshments)

Info: 604.677.67434 or e-mail jeff@jeffbalin.com

And here's the longer explanation of what it's all about:

Aligning Our Work in the World to Our Deepest Aspirations

This one-day workshop will deepen your integration of professional efforts with the truest sense of who you are.  You will develop navigational tools that blend logical examination (thinking) and intuitive knowing (awareness) to bring greater guidance, purpose and meaning to your work in the world.

Designed as a framework of "permission," this workshop is as much about the content as it is about the support and discovery you will gain from a group of diverse participants committed to honest, heartfelt exploration around how we spend the majority of our waking life.

Is it for you?  This workshop will be highly beneficial if any of the following apply to you:

  • Not yet on the right professional tangent and can't seem to "get there"
  • Basically "getting by," but sense there is a deeper level of meaning to bring to your work
  • Have already found your calling and want to deepen your connection to it.

Main Themes:

  1. CENTERING into personal integrity (who we are)
  2. MOVING BEYOND personal pettiness (what holds us back)
  3. REACHING INSIDE for greatness (our deepest aspiration)
  4. MANIFESTING it in the "real world" (actions we must take)

Post-Workshop Support: To sustain momentum beyond the "excitement of the day," each participant also receives peer-to-peer support with an "Accountability Partner," a series of "Daily Practices" for two-weeks, and a 1-1 follow-up call with Jeff.

Click here to register.