Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So was it an internet election?

The verdict was already in, even before polling day. This was not an internet election, and all those who had suggested it might be had got it completely wrong.

It was a television election, and all of those tweeters and bloggers were sad political obsessives talking to each other.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown

Hold on a minute - can I insert a couple of points about what has already become received wisdom? First, even the most rabid of digital enthusiasts never suggested that new-media techniques would be the decisive factor.

Just about every debate I attended on this issue before the campaign ended with everyone agreeing that television, and the debates in particular, would be decisive.

But the internet, from social media to Google to good old-fashioned news websites, did play a significant part in the way many people experienced this election - and that was very different from what happened in 2005.

The web was successful in getting more people to engage with the campaign, it played a role in the way parties sought to persuade voters into their camp and to organise that process. It was also a source of news - although this was one area where its effect was smaller than expected.


This was the first election where social networking played a part; although the conversation on Twitter may have been restricted to a few hundred thousand political geeks, there is evidence that younger people in particular used these now-familiar forums to engage with the campaign.

A YouGov survey found that a quarter of 18-24-year-olds had commented on politics via social networks.

Facebook, a much bigger network than Twitter, seemed uncertain how to engage its users at the beginning of the campaign - but by the end they were flocking to political pages, creating groups and generally showing more enthusiasm for politics than might be expected of a group often caricatured as news-averse and self-obsessed.

Facebook's tie-up with the Electoral Commission to promote voter registration also appears to have been a success, with visits to the registration site soaring after links appeared on users' profiles.


The parties went into the campaign determined to use digital means to reach voters. Both the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, Labour made sophisticated use of Google's AdSense system to place political messages next to search terms.

On polling day, the Tories went one step further, buying what they described as the best piece of online real estate you can find, the front page of YouTube, to place an advert telling users to vote Conservative.

Earlier, the Liberal Democrats also managed to get a YouTube clip of Nick Clegg talking about the Digital Economy Bill as the spotlight video for iGoogle users, thereby sending this message to a technically sophisticated audience.

Huge e-mail databases were used to contact voters time and again throughout the campaign with personalised messages from the likes of Gordon, David and Nick.

Meanwhile, the parties were still spending sizeable amounts on that traditional election tool, the poster campaign - only to find that just about every poster was swiftly amended by online spoofers.

Did any of this make a jot of difference? Hard to say, but that's also the case with the old media methods.


One dull, but important, aspect of the internet election was the way the parties used e-mail, text messages and social networks to organise their troops on the ground.

Initiatives such as Labour's Mobile Monday - phone canvassing organised via Twitter - may have helped raise the morale of party workers, even if they failed to stem the losses.

One Conservative candidate told me that campaign meetings had been rendered obsolete by the new methods. We watched teams of eager canvassers, some of whom had been recruited via Facebook, fan out across the constituency, led by a very young campaign manager who had studied American methods.

News cycle

For anyone watching the campaign closely, the blogs and social networks - particularly Twitter - provided a fascinating running commentary from an array of mostly partisan viewpoints.

That seemed to make every event, from the TV debates to the "bigoted woman" row, happen at warp speed - so that, after a few hours, it was time to move on to something new.

But did these new media sources actually provide breaking news stories? Apart from the odd Twitter gaffe, not really. Nor did amateur footage shot on mobile phones change the course of the campaign.

There were some mildly amusing videos, but no Prescott punch, nor any unguarded comments caught by a passing blogger. Perhaps the politicians were just too mindful of the dangers - while forgetting a more potent threat, the radio microphone.

So it wasn't an election won or lost by the internet, but nor was it untouched by the technology. New voters appeared to enjoy their first experience of an election campaign, and will now expect to engage with future elections via the web.

The real question to ask is whether politicians and the voters will be more or less inclined to use the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Google. I cannot imagine that having gone down this path, they will now retreat to the old methods.


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