by Martin Veitch

I’m calling a hung parliament on whether this is an e-election

Apr 20, 2010
IT Strategy

One-time Mirror editor and now media commentator Roy Greenslade had a good old-fashioned rant about social networks, the internet and the election in his Evening Standard blog last week and I’ve finally got around to explaining why I got a bit worked up reading Greenslade getting all worked up.

The first par gives us a taste of things to come.

“I am already heartily fed up with the knee-jerk claim, usually by people without a shred of knowledge, that this is Britain’s first internet election. It is not. It is being fought very much like all elections in the last 30 years or so, through traditional mainstream media.”

Why get fed up, Roy? All those people that don’t have shred of knowledge can’t have such great long-term influence can they? But are you sure all these elections are being fought out in the ‘mainstream media’? Surely a lot of people have fixed ideas on the ways they are going to vote, or they’re persuaded by meeting candidates and so on? And what happened before this last 30 years or so? The first ‘TV election’?

“Yes, there are bloggers and tweeters contributing from the sidelines. Politicians are falling over themselves to log on to social networking sites — meaning one, Facebook…”

Well, there are others, such as Twitter for example…

“… — and the campaign has boosted traffic for Mumsnet, the publicity-conscious website that’s hyped itself into our consciousness by convincing old-fashioned media that it matters.”

And by the fact that lots of people visit the site and contribute to the excellent community aspects of the site, no?

“Indeed, if a neophyte political blogger wishes to make a name for him or herself, there is no better way than promotion through the supposedly outmoded platforms of print, TV and radio.”

But who said they were outmoded? Anyway, jumping ahead…

“There is, at present anyway, no substitute for knocking on doors and speaking at the hustings.”

Apart from coverage in the ‘mainstream media’ that all elections for the last 30 years or so have been fought through, one assumes. I have never seen the hustings as I thought they died out with the last king.

“Going on the emails I have received in my constituency, none have anything like the impact of canvassing on the doorstep.”

Not strictly an internet phenomenon email, but never mind, at least we’ve found a man who listens to canvassers rather than pretending not to be in.

“(Incidentally, all of them are written as if addressing a first-time voter with somewhat limited intelligence. If only the parties had thought to hire redundant newspaper sub-editors).”

Unlike the high-quality literature shoved through the letterbox. Anyway, those sub-editors now work for the internet people.

“There appears to be a desperation, not least in the press itself, to promote the idea of this being an internet election. So odd net-related incidents are adduced as proof of a digi-political revolution.”

Ah, the old two incidents makes a trend’ trick: how low!

“There was the Labour candidate in Scotland forced to stand down for having sent offensive messages on Twitter. Yet his “crime” occurred months before the election was called and is of no lasting consequence.”

True but it’s trickier to discount all the other Twitter media storms. Anyway, didn’t you say earlier that this whole social network thing was only about Facebook?

“I note the eminently sensible political blogger, Iain Dale, is also unconvinced. ‘It is easy to exaggerate the use of and importance of social media in election campaigns,’ he writes. ‘In marginal seats, it could well make a bit of a difference, but overall I just don’t see blogging, Facebook and Twitter having a massive impact, apart from possibly a negative one where some idiot of a candidate posts something without thinking.’ So, he concludes, we will have to wait a few years for the arrival of ‘the internet election’.”

Fine, although in marginal seats a bit of difference could be quite significant, especially in what a lot of people think is a close-run race.

“Is one party doing better than another in this brave new digital world? Not according to Sir Martin Sorrell, head of advertising group WPP, who argued last month that “neither UK political party has a digital marketing edge… yet.”

Surely that doesn’t matter though, given that this election will be won through the mainstream media. Or was it through canvassing and the hustings?

“I noted earlier this year that PR professionals, while parroting stuff about the internet playing ‘a key role’ in the election, were not only unable to say what that role might be but were also convinced that voters would still be more influenced by what is published and broadcast by mainstream media.”

Well, who knows what plays a key role? A newspaper like The Independent? Polls that quite often fail by a wide margin to predict outcomes? Wives of party political leaders? Haircuts?

“George Pascoe-Watson, formerly the political editor of The Sun and now an associate partner at Portland PR, was reportedly cautious about overplaying the role of the web, talking vaguely of it making a significant contribution.”

Eminently sensible hedging on his behalf.

“Clearly, David Cameron believes in internet power because he has shown enormous enthusiasm for the web. He and wife Samantha have put considerable effort into their YouTube offerings, though I’m unsure whether it will have much of an effect.”

We know why you think that now: because the election will be fought through the traditional media as it has been for 30 or so years.

“Though they come across well in the footage, better by some distance than Gordon Brown and his wife when they are filmed chatting to ‘ordinary people’, it would be surprising if the clips do more than reinforce the views of committed voters.”

Yes but what about the ordinary people floating voters? It’s them wot win it for the parties in the end, innit?

“That is a further problem with those who want to believe the Net will influence voting patterns. It is hard to imagine that floating voters in marginal seats — the people who really control the make-up of the next Parliament — are spending time assessing what’s available online.”

No, but a lot will be breathing it in without knowing it just as with the BBC news, newspaper headlines and the rest of the ‘mainstream media’.

“I am not saying, of course, that the Net will have no influence. In terms of everyday mid-term politics, it has proved its worth. A big story could always break first in cyberspace: Guido Fawkes, the most active and best-read of British political bloggers, has a track record of revealing stories that have proved uncomfortable for Labour, and there is always a possibility of his coming up with a scoop that will embarrass the party in some way. Other bloggers could conceivably do the same. That is very different, however, from an ‘internet election’. This kind of net activity goes on all the time. It is not transformative. The agenda is being set, as before, by mainstream media with the Net in the background. When the first TV debate between the leaders occurs tomorrow, clips will be posted on the web and hundreds, maybe thousands, of bloggers will respond. But most comments will consist of reactions to the reactions of mainstream commentators.”

Yes. We’ll all say: ‘Did you see how old what’s his name handled them. That was the highlight for me.’ Or ‘I’m waiting for Hugo Whatshisname to comment in The Guardian before I set out my view.’

I don’t think many people believe that social networks and other internet activity will make or break our leading parties on their own but they will probably act upon our collective consciousness. I’d be cautious about naming causes of election victories as even the experts in the ‘mainstream media’ don’t seem to agree or predict outcomes with any great confidence. But it’s reasonably clear that for a significant number of us (licks finger, holds aloft) it is a medium that is increasingly influential. That doesn’t mean that the ‘mainstream media’ has lost its influence; just that times are changing.

For another point of view I asked Paul Bates of online marketing firm StrongMail Systems to comment on the Greenslade piece. His view:

“Strong convictions indeed. But my concern is, in light of the meteoric rise of Twitter and Facebook, and in one of the tightest elections in recent memory, should social media really be discounted so easily? Greenslade writes, ‘There is, at present anyway, no substitute for knocking on doors and speaking at the hustings.’ Maybe so, but is this due to the irrelevance of social media, or politician’s lack of understanding for it? When used appropriately, this is a medium that could transform a party’s image with otherwise disinterested voters. I would never suggest that the Internet can fully replace traditional campaign methods, but how can the importance of social media be ruled out if it hasn’t even been properly attempted yet?”

As Bates suggests, the attempts to use the internet for campaigning but circumstantial evidence from the success of Barack Obama to the hilarity at tweaked versions of David Cameron Tory party ads suggest that it has to be worth a try. And by the way, I read Roy Greenslade’s column on the web, linked from his Guardian blog; the free newspaper that paid him to write it is sometimes hard to find, even in central London.