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The UK election seen through social media

Back in November 2008 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote a post on how astute use of the internet and social media had a helping hand in getting Barack Obama to the White House. While the crucial role of the internet as a medium in the US election has been widely acknowledged, not so for the UK election. In fact, what with the new leaders’ TV debates, television has played an even more important role than it ever has before, when we might have expected to follow the trend set by the US election. This started me thinking about why this might be. Are we just really behind the times?

Yesterday the New Statesman ran an article which explores some of the possible reasons. I’m tempted to conclude that politicians in the UK  have simply not yet taken the internet seriously enough as medium (remember Cameron’s ‘too many tweets make a twit’ comment?). However, the major parties do seem to all have Twitter profiles, and the Conservatives even have their ‘WebCameron’, so it’s not as if they have completely ignored the medium’s potential.  

However, I think one of the problems is they still don’t quite fully understand it or know how to exploit its full potential. The internet is certainly a powerful vehicle which can quickly speed out of control, but instead of attempting to take the wheel, the parties seem to tend to just let it do its own thing. So we see the supporters, such as Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, starting their own Twitter campaigns and the politicians just piggybacking on that once the campaign gains in popularity.

Perhaps the politicians just don’t believe that using the internet to garner support will make a difference. But, from the voting public’s point of view, aside from door-to-door visits, reaching out via the internet (e.g. using something like Twitter) must surely be the most direct and democratic way of communicating, right? It offers politicians a direct line of communication with the public. If they’re worried that communicating with voters via social media may come across as cheesy or cynical, is this really more of a concern than the fact that TV and the press can never offer a truly neutral medium for a political message? There is always an editorial agenda of some kind, and while this is of course also true of much the internet (particularly blogs), it at least offers a more interactive, diverse medium. What politics needs, surely, is a two-way conversation with the electorate, not just one-way electioneering.

I imagine the real reason politicians have not made more use of Twitter, for example, is that they believe it is used only by the country’s chattering classes, liberals and progressives, who have probably already made up their minds about who to vote for. But this assumption really underestimates the far-reaching power of social media. Using the search hash-tag for my local town, I’ve certainly seen a number of undecided voters who have not yet engaged with any party and are looking for information.

I would argue that the internet really can help to change the course of an election, or at least help inform people about their options. Sites such as Votematch and 38Degrees help to provide the public with the facts and make an informed decision, an antidote to the irresponsible journalism and scaremongering often peddled by the press from both ends of political spectrum.

On a lighter note, it seems I’m not the only one trying to draw comparisons with the 2008 US elections  – The Sun has published a picture of David Cameron on its front page edited to look like one of Obama’s famous election images.  Alarmingly, they seem to be piggybacking on support for a US President in what is a completely and utterly different election, in completely and utterly different circumstances. At least, if Obama happens to see it (possibly via Twitter), it’d probably make him chuckle, given his previous meeting with Cameron. Oh dear, I think I’ve just been decidedly un-neutral 😉икони

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  1. céline

    May 06, 2010

    Yesterday the leader of the Green party, who stands a real chance of winning Brighton Pavilion, was pulled up on being one of the signatories of the “Declaration of Christian conscience” against gay and women’s rights, amongst other things. She replied immediately on Twitter to explain that she hasn’t signed it, didn’t know why her name was on it and had demanded that it be taken off. Impressive!

  2. philippa

    May 06, 2010

    That’s pretty responsive! Pleasantly surprised to see Caroline Lucas did win her seat in Brighton – a big, positive moment for UK politics.

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May 06, 2010

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