2010: A digital election?

Rachel Clarke, head of social media at twentysix, says digital has had a bigger role to play in this election than some would think.

Rachel Clarke

All of the big ’moments’ for this election – the public debates, the egg attack on David Cameron and ’bigot-gate’ have been captured on TV, with online video showing repeats of the action. TV has certainly played the leading role in engaging the electorate, so has digital been relegated to a supporting role? Not necessarily.

This is the first election in which old and new media have played off each other to meet the biggest marketing challenge going: wringing some interest out of UK politics.

So what has digital contributed? Interaction is the most obvious answer. It has brought like-minded people together, creating a national playing field – a far cry from the ’local activism’ elections of old. Digital has provided a forum for discussion of national issues.

For the first time, political parties used social media through sites such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the electorate online. We also saw the birth of digital debates, in which people submitted questions to politicians that were then answered in the form of YouTube videos and watched more than 750,000 times.

Live online opinion polls that gauge the electoral mood, such as 10 Downing Tweets, have also played a key role. Though it may be only the Twitter and Facebook demographic involved, it’s a wide demographic and it has helped raise awareness in previously apathetic constituents. It has also fed offline news channels with fresh, up-to-the-minute data.

Online discourse, then, is informing the wider debate, fuelling sentiment analysis and gaining column inches and broadcast minutes.

Digital also provided the detail, the much-needed meat on the bones beyond the billboards and sound bites and what was possible even with the first set of televised debates.

Issues-based websites and blogs created by political parties, lobby groups and the people sprung up all over the web as well as handy little apps that asked users a series of issues-based questions and generated percentages that told them how firmly aligned to each party they were.

We also saw political parties using Facebook to organise flashmobs. And, of course, sympathetic and derisory bloggers played their part, mashing up party content and feeding it out. None of this activity takes place in a vacuum – everything was picked up and pushed out.

Today’s search engines serve up blog posts, images, videos and news, not just ’official’ sites. They even show the ads political parties bought against their opponents’ names. Even if only searching for mainstream news, you’re exposed to ’social’ content.

Because the web is permanently recording all the information -each news story, video clip, live debate, advert and poll – it means the election was less transitory, less fleeting.

I did not have to look around the house to find leaflets or call up to receive party manifestos as I would have done before – I had it all at my fingertips and, what’s more, I could search on YouTube and see every candidate in action, the good, the bad and the ugly. Which brings me on to my next point: transparency.

The sheer speed of new media means ’facts’ that stretch the truth are increasingly difficult to assert, because they can be almost instantly checked and another view pushed out (although the flip-side of this is that rumours spread just as quickly).

The difference in style between the first TV debate and the second, after the politicians had learnt that anecdotes no longer wash, was clear; in the age of digital media, claims have to be able to stand up.

This means digital has arguably fostered an improvement in the political system by introducing greater transparency and accountability. This time around the impact may have been small, but come the next election there will be ways of aggregating all of the information in an even slicker ways.

This is all well and good. But does voting on Twitter, for example, make people any more likely to vote in the real world? Does increased noise both on and offline translate into longer queues at the polling booths?

There has certainly been a number of online campaigns to encourage registration and voting. But remember, the election calls for a two-step process in terms of a call to action: to register first, and then to go to the polling station to vote.

Digital has the power to make those people who are already interested in politics more passionate and draw those on-the-fence types into the debate. Social media also has the power to increase despondency in the electorate, as truth – in the form of unfiltered, un-spun information about the political landscape is made available.

Voter apathy is not something that can be solved with more social networking, or indeed more media exposure of any kind.

The political system itself needs to heal on a deeper level. When it does, media old and new will surely be there to support it.

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