Tony Blair’s last landslide majority came in 2005, a time when nobody had heard of Twitter or Facebook, today we hear of little else. In what has been dubbed the ‘web election’ (Labour has now abandoned High Street billboard posters entirely.) digital media is set to take centre stage in a looming assault on the nation’s voting preferences as rival political strategists marshall under General election to embrace viral campaigns, websites run out with old party structures and citizen journalism in a high stakes game of one-upmanship for which X marks the spot.
These approaches are borne out of a desire to emulate a little of the star dust which was liberally sprinkled upon the Obama persona in America’s 2008 election campaign when the budding Presidential candidate deftly channelled public goodwill into dollars and volunteer work: “Who wasn’t impressed by Obama’s deft, election-winning Web2.0 strategy and micro-fundraising?” Asks Kirsty Jackson, Social Media Analyst at The Gate Worldwide: “Our political parties are plainly excited about the prospect of talking to like-minded people in a cost-effective way – using their own supporters to do the digital doorstepping.”
Some though are questioning if e- campaigns in the UK might actually lose the election rather than win it after the Conservative slipped up with the ‘Cash Gordon’ affair, a garish website with all manner of social media widgets tacked on that encouraged users to read, donate and tweet about the financial links between the Unite union and Gordon Brown. Much to the delight of Labour however it later emerged that this followed an off the shelf template used in the US to host an anti-healthcare reform campaign, a petition against homosexuals in the armed forces and attacks against carbon trading legislation. More embarrassingly the party’s e campaign team plumped for an umoderated #cashgordon hashtag, opening the floodgates to a deluge of malicious tweets, #ToryFail indeed.
Left wingers have not had things all their own way however with the Tories continuing to jib and jab away over Gordon Brown’s alleged bullying, praying for that sucker punch. Indeed that media fracas even served to raise Brown’s international profile in perhaps unwelcome ways with Apple Daily, a Taiwanese paper, producing an animation of the British leader resorting to physical outlets for his frustrations, much to the chagrin of a car seat, colleague and hapless secretary.
Jackson reckons that this time it’s personal for the politicos: “At last, the Labour Party is putting the ‘social’ into socialism. Last month, the party in power announced its social media strategy for the forthcoming general election with LabourList and the as-yet empty LabourDoorstep on Twitter. New Labour has been slow to respond to new media, playing catch-up to the Conservatives. Led by the indomitable Webcameron, the Conservatives have crafty pay-per-click political ads, and an online local campaigning toolkit in the form of MyConservatives.com. Their Facebook page even has three times more ‘fans’ than Labour, and they have twice as many followers on Twitter.”
Central to the Machiavellian art of jerry rigging opponent’s messages to confuse and amuse is a desire to tap into that swelling section of the electorate turned off by official party mantras amidst allegations of sleaze and electioneering. Making all this possible is the fact that the press and creative agencies have lost their monopoly as a conduit of information between the elected and their electors, user generated content is assuming increased dominance as bedroom activists outflank the professionals. Could this shift one day supplant traditional media and PR? “Probably not”, says the Deputy Director of Campaigns for the Liberal Democrats, Andrew Reeves: “but it’s certainly snapping at its heels. There are times when a story will be breaking news on mediums such as Twitter, with journalists then playing catch up, other times social media is used by journalists to get their story out quickly.”
Such underhand antics are finding increasing favour by both party high command and the grassroots for a combination of cost effectiveness and high impact, particularly in Labour circles with the party battling to compete on even financial terms with a paltry war chest of £9m, the Tories by contrast have amassed a healthy £18m.
There is a darker side to all this fun and frolic however, the undermining of parliamentary authority (already at a low ebb) with an even spread of muck. No holds barred attacks are escalating from harmless posters to dubious attacks and hacks of MP’s websites and Twitter accounts. Reeves worries about this slippery slope: “Social media can let dirty politics creep in. The Damian McBride incident at Westminster (when Gordon Brown’s personal spin doctor plotted to spread malicious rumours about top Tories) and more recently, the Universality of Cheese blogging incident at Holyrood (whereupon SNP blogger mark Maclachlan used his blog as a platform to spread smears) aren’t the best adverts for new media. Although these two incidents were very different, they both damaged blogging for a short while, although some may say it just showed the real side of politicians! Blogging has made it easier for people to hide behind a pseudonym to smear opposition politicians, although this is a tiny minority, the majority peg party colours firmly and proudly to the mast.”
Chris Quigley of creative business incubator Team Rubber thinks the biggest role for social media during the election will be as an ‘amplifier’. “We’ll see parties activating their supporters to campaign and share (positive and negative) messages” Quigley avers: “For the wider public, we’ll see populist political bloopers being shared and enjoyed across the likes of YouTube and Facebook.”
This amplification poses risks however, particularly for our gaffe prone politicians, prompting many campaigners to bullet WWII style posters in their campaign rooms remonstrating that: “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets”. Matthew MacGregor of Bluestate digital articulates the risks inherent to the medium: “Social media can be used very well… and it can be used very badly.” To evade the latter campaigners are moving away from treating voters as passive recipients simply absorbing content, says Ivor Gabor, Professor of Political Campaigning and Reporting at London’s City University: “The main political parties are now offering phone banks inviting people to join in and become canvassers on their behalf making calls to friends and neighbours in swing seats, producing advocates from within the community. This is not robocalls or paying staffers this is making calls with a real sense of enthusiasm, it’s traditional campaigning, knocking on doors, neighbours speaking to neighbours, people in their workplaces but using modern tools. The problem our parties have is how do you relate to your members on the ground? What level of autonomy do you give them?”
This observation is shared by Reeves who is pursuing a different tack: “Unlike other parties, we don’t control our supporters – if they want to know what our policy is to support a blog post, or a Facebook update, then we’re happy to offer advice, but we can’t and don’t dictate to our supporters. Their blog posts, tweets status updates and videos are their own words and work. It’s a great way to show the real side of our candidates – what they’ve been doing, who they’ve been visiting and what they think while they’re out and about.”
Video is also a critical component of any election campaign, but this year will trump all others with a televised American style debate taking place between the three protagonists. Expect running commentaries to clog Twitter for the duration and extended debates on the perceived winner to fill message forums, will we get our ‘Nixon’ moment?.
But will all this frenzied activity make any difference? Gabor thinks it could prove critical: “They do tend to cancel each other out but there is a slight margin of difference, elections are one and lost in the margins so if you can squeeze out an extra 1% in those crucial seats that can make a big difference even though the big numbers don’t look like they’ve changed that much.”
New found political freedoms are invigorating a fresh generation of voters not hide bound to the traditional ideologies of big party diktat thinks Jackson: “Issues, debates and blunders will be picked up fast. Campaign moves will be dissected, replayed, shared, praised and pilloried as never before. As a result, the quality of the Parties’ social media strategies and techniques will be just as relevant as the popularity of their policies.”
Politics just got a whole lot livelier… and a whole lot deadlier.