The ban on the use of the Internet for election campaigns will finally be lifted in Japan, starting with the Upper House poll in July.
A revision to the Public Offices Election Law to allow online election campaigning was passed by the Upper House into law in a plenary session on April 19. The Lower House passed the bill earlier this month.
The revision will allow political parties and candidates to update their websites and blogs during official election campaign periods, which was previously prohibited. The revision also allows them to use social media like Twitter and Facebook for their campaigns.
For some time now, the Internet has been widely used in the United States, Europe, South Korea and other parts of the world as an important channel of communication between the political community and the public and as an effective tool for election campaigns.
We hope the Diet’s move, albeit a grossly belated one, to catch up with the trend will lead to a significant change in Japan’s closed political culture, which is marked by an excessive dependence on entrenched support groups and organizations.
The biggest advantage of Internet election campaigns is the interactivity they offer between candidates and voters.
Using traditional campaign media, such as official election publications, campaign broadcasts and street speeches, candidates are only able to send out one-way messages to the voting public. The number of voters who can actually get information from these media sources and the amount of time they spend doing so are both limited.
But social media sites like Twitter and Facebook enable voters to question candidates directly and receive answers from them. Because these exchanges between candidate and voter are online and available to the public, other voters are able to join the discussions, too.
Online communications also give political parties and candidates the opportunity to flesh out and revise the specifics of their policies by receiving feedback from a wide range of people, not just their supporters.
The introduction of Internet campaigns should also promote debates between voters on policy issues and encourage Net-savvy and typically apolitical young people to take part in the democratic process.
There are, of course, some downsides to online election campaigns.
During presidential elections in the United States and South Korea, malicious slanders are frequently circulated on the Internet as part of smear campaigns against certain candidates.
The just-enacted revision to Japan's electoral law allows only political parties and candidates themselves to use emails for election campaigns. The rationale given by the bill's authors is that emails can be rather easily used for spoofing or defamation since their content is not accessible to other Internet users.
It is, however, confusing to the public to restrict the use of emails to communicate messages for election campaigns while allowing tweets carrying the same messages.
A change was made to the bill to keep the door open for ending this restriction in the future.
Lawmakers should seek to lift all restrictions concerning the use of emails for election campaigns while taking necessary steps to deal with the concerns.
In countries that have already legalized online election campaigns, the Internet has dramatically changed the face of elections, for better or for worse.
Internet election campaigning has allowed many politicians and political parties to adjust and improve their policies by making use of the huge amount of information constantly flowing through cyberspace.
It has also generated cases where a minor gaffe ensured a candidate's defeat after video footage of the mistake was uploaded to video-sharing sites.
The reform will nevertheless be meaningful if it creates more tension among politicians by putting them in direct contact with the voices of voters.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 12
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