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Tweeting for Votes in Latvia (Sept. 2010)

The one thing you can’t say about voters in Latvia is that they lack for information. As we approach election day on October 2nd, Latvia’s 1,514,936 eligible voters have been talked at, written to, snail-mailed and e-mailed, pamphleted on the street, and proselytized on the airwaves. They’ve been told how to vote and who to vote for in every way imaginable, including many which didn’t exist just a few years ago.

You can still get news in newspapers, but these days those who like to log on can learn anything they want to know about the candidates and their parties in dozens of webzines, ezines, hyperzines, and cyberzines. The battleground of the blogs is spread across a landscape of websites of every description, covering the gamut of news agencies, non-governmental organizations, special interests groups and political parties that use the cyberspace of the 21st century to give their spin on the already dizzying issues of the day.

It used to be that you had to work the streets to get the vote out, but today every candidate with a PC is obligated to make the social nets work as well. The political technologists of the cyber age will tell you that he who doesn’t Twitter is a quitter. If you want to get elected, you’ve got to blog as if your political life depended on it. It just may.

The U.S. State Department’s former cyber-diplomat Jared Cohen was in Latvia recently and was told that 80% of Latvia’s September tweets were about the October 2nd election. Since Latvia’s journalists, politicians, social activists, campaign workers, government employees and advertising gurus all tend to follow each other across the tweet-o-sphere that may be an understatement.

In Latvia, the prime minister tweets and prime ministerial candidates and their parties tweet back at him. Journalists retweet what other journalists have written, and everyone with access to the right apps is using the endless online social stream to edify the electrified electorate.

Of course, not all the Latvian electorate gets their information online, so public and private television is flooding their airwaves with a daily diet of debates, discussions and analyses of various depths and every description. When LNT-TV is holding “Leader Debates”, LTV is debating “What’s Happening in Latvia”, and unless you’ve got a rapid-fire remote, you’ll never keep up with the controversies on the competing channels. TV3 and TV5 are also broadcasting political news, and the all-news stations LZK and TV24 are rebroadcasting even more. And if you can’t keep up with any of that, you can go back to the tweeters who will tell you what they think you should think about what’s being said on TV.

PROVIDUS, a Latvian centre for public policy has a website called “SmartHeads”, enabling candidates to directly and publicly communicate with voters. Transparency International’s local organization, DELNA, has created a “Candidates in your Palm” website where past and future politicians are analyzed and rated according to DELNA’s standards of honesty, integrity and legal liability. The public policy website POLITIKA.LV urges voters to “Try on a Party” – by answering questions based on party positions.

By law, each of the political parties and alliances must submit a 4000-character pre-election program. Some go to great pains to develop even longer, more detailed programs, while others let their ad men condense the 4000 characters into a forkful of tasty sound bites. If that isn’t enough, you can find loads of others promises, predictions, and pithy observations in every party or alliance website that’s been specially created for the elections.

According to recent surveys, 64% of Latvia’s populace uses the Internet to get information, chat with friends, send emails, do their banking, buy and sell products, or play online games. Latvia’s most popular social network, DRAUGIEM.LV, has 2’588’745 registered users, which far exceeds the population of Latvia. Latvia’s Facebook has 160’000 users and of the 145 million Twitter users in the world, 33’300 are in Latvia.

Of the 1’132’000 Internet users in Latvia, many use the vast array of websites to express their own views of the politicians, parties and promises that appear there. But unless they have to register and give their real names, there’s no way of knowing who is behind the endless anonymous nicks that litter the commentary sections of every on-line news story. In Latvia’s pre-election period, teams of party loyalists (paid or otherwise) flood the commentary sections with a fervour exceeded only by Latvian beavers descending on the Rīga Canal. While local authorities still don’t know how to stop the beavers, most voters have learned how to deal with the nonsense of nameless nicks. They ignore them.

According to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Latvian media environment was assessed “as providing the public with diverse information and a plurality of viewpoints”. But the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has expressed concerns “with the lack of transparency in media ownership and with reported affiliations of some leading commercial broadcasters and newspapers with influential businessmen and politicians”. In other words, Latvia is like every other Western democracy where speech is so free, you can buy and sell it as you please. Or as A. J. Liebling wrote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”.

Disturbing as that may be, Mashable, a website devoted to social media, says that may no longer matter. They claim that 75% of the news we get online today comes from sources other than traditional media outlets: “We have gone from consuming news through traditional media and news websites to having the news broadcast to us by our social network of friends”.

So despite all the money being poured into overt and covert political advertising, and regardless of who owns which media outlet and why, Latvians today have no shortage of sources for information about the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some will study every party platform, read every blog, and monitor every TV, and radio debate. While others will do what they’ve always done – ask their neighbours. Only these days, that “neighbour” could be anywhere, as long as he’s just a tweet away.

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