(Not So) Permanent Memory: The Impact of the Internet on Political Research

By Jared Wesley on Sep 21, 2008

Harold Jansen is right:  The Web is a treasure trove for politicos and campaign junkies.  From a research perspective, though, there's one major drawback to the Internet age... 

As someone who's spent the last three years collecting political party platforms (from archives, attics, basements, car trunks, etc.), the internet has been both a godsend, and a source of worry.

Nearly everything (Canadian) parties do as far as campaigning is now online.  Their platforms are posted, as are all of their news releases and advertisements.  It's a virtual goldmine for people looking to study the so-called "supply-side" of democracy (i.e., what parties do in terms of "supplying" voters with choices during elections.)

HOWEVER, unless we, as researchers, make a concerted effort to download and archive these materials at the time, they are are almost certain to be lost forever.  (Try looking up a Canadian Alliance platform online, and you'll see what I mean.)  Old Marijuana Party videos aside, most parties make a concerted effort to pull their materials offline following the campaign. 

"Wait," you might say.  "The parties must keep track of these things, either in electronic or print archives."  Again, a visit to any party headquarters will be a sobering experience.  These records typically "disappear" following an election campaign, or are "purged" when the leadership changes hands.  (Indeed, at the provincial level, parties are approaching researchers for old copies of campaign literature and platforms.)

Fortunately, there are some resources available to them (and to researchers).  In a shameless plug for my own research team, a group based out of Laval has organized the Poltext Project in an attempt to provide public access to party manifestos, government documents, and other such materials.  Our work is only just beginning, and can only scratch the surface of the material that is out there.

All of this is to say that, while the Internet provides a wealth of information for current (or recent) political events, be aware:  If you want to study this sort of thing, you're well advised to keep your own archives.

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I feel your pain

"Harold Jansen is right." I think all blog posts should begin this way from now on. And all conversations should start that way, too.

I know what you mean, Jared. In 2000, I used software to track daily changes to party websites. It's amazing how many little changes get made. What's the definitive record. However, I notice that people are getting better about taking screen grabsand archiving. The puffin poop thing got taken down, but the screen grabs live on. That's kind of hit and miss thing is cold comfort for academics trying to do research.

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