The leaders of the UK’s three main political parties have all agreed to participate in television debates in the lead up to the May election. Most pundits agree these TV events will dominate the campaign and will likely mean candidates spend less time on the hustings.
Not to worry, the Internet will pick up the slack in helping candidates communicate directly with voters across Britain. It will be a interesting blend of super-controlled mainstream media and what some see as chaotic social media. But which will be more effective getting out the vote?
The prime ministerial candidates have agreed to a complex set of guideline for the TV debate comprised of more than 70 rules which forbid, among many other things, heckling and applause from the audience. Contrast this to the uncontrolled blogosphere and you get two very different aspects of political debate.
It was a subject discussed earlier this week by a City University panel of digital and politics experts.
The use of email and social networks in mobilising activists will be key to getting out the vote according to panelist Matthew McGregor, director at Blue State Digital, the agency that handled the Internet campaign for Barack Obama’s successful presidential bid. In his view, the TV debates will serve as a catalyst for online discussion and viewers will be voicing their responses in realtime…long before any opinion polls can be undertaken.
Google’s head of corporate communications in the UK, DJ Collins took part. He said, “Online video and camera phones create the moments that create massive drama. And they catch politicians at their most unguarded.” He said this is taking control away from party strategists, and he predicted that in the upcoming election, there will be candidates that will fall afoul of this.
Professor Ivor Gabor, Professor of Political Campaigning and Reporting, City University London, pointed out that campaigns tend to evolve more slowly than we think; there are few sea changing events. He explained that during the last election we saw the ‘air war’ and ‘ground war’ where the parties tried to by pass the media with a lot of direct mail and phone bank campaigning. Social media makes fighting the ground war much easier, he said. But social media also makes it easier for the mainstream media to see what’s going on. So the air war and ground war have effectively merged.
BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson didn’t mince his words. He said that. at its worst, the conversation about new media is self important, narcissistic tosh. “Some of the stuff I see on Twitter is far from being new. It’s like a return to some of those small print magazines that were dashed around coffee houses a hundred years ago.” However he did concede that Sarah Brown, Gordon Brown’s wife, is now one of the most influential people in politics thanks to her 1m+ Twitter followers.
Rishi Saha, a former Conservative candidate and now Head of New Media for the party was also on hand. He likened the Obama presidential campaign to a start-up company. “It had no activists, no base, no money, nothing. They had to create something from scratch. And the Internet is the best way to scale something very quickly,” he explained. The UK parties are very different. They have two-hundred years of history, hundreds of thousands of members and firm foundations. “It’s like asking Thomas Cook to be a bit more like lastminute.com,” he said.
Another former parliamentary candidate and political blogger, Rupa Huq said that she gets the feeling that all this online mobilisation is better suited to single issues than it is to political parties. She referred to Harold Wilson‘s view that a week is a long time in politics. She said that in an age of status updates, blogfeeds and tweets, a week is really an eternity now.
So what was the overall consensus? A show of hand showed that three quarters of the people in the audience believe the TV debates will prove to be more important to the outcome of the election than any social media engagement.
Unfortunately, the people at City University don’t quite get the ‘social’ bit of the piece and have not made the video of the event available on YouTube. However you can visit their own website to view it by clicking here.
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