Lib Dems’ View: How Much of an Internet General Election Has it Been?

Editor’s note: This column is part of a series dedicated to looking at the digital strategies and tactics being employed in the U.K elections. This series will explore how each of the parties are using search and display advertising, social media, and other digital tools, techniques, and platforms — as well as how they measure the results of their efforts.

This has been the TV debate election. That first TV debate turned the electoral race on its head and the subsequent two further debates kept the race in its topsy-turvy state.

In that sense this hasn’t been the Internet election; it’s been the TV election. It’s not even been a modern TV election, with the debates taking a concept first tried in Sweden in the 1950s and using it to produce three 90 minute TV shows, without advert breaks, fancy computer graphics, cutaways to pundits, or interaction for the audience at home. This was old fashioned TV at its finest.

So should we just carefully file away all those pieces about the impact of the Internet and hope the copy might be reusable with more conviction next time round?

Not quite.

One reason has been illustrated by my own personal experience during the campaign. A fair amount of my time has been taken up helping candidates with their local online campaigning — local e-mails, use of Facebook to engage with residents in particular constituencies, application of Twitter as a local news service and so on. This local online campaigning continues to be mostly neglected by pundits and, whilst it’s is more an evolution of existing political campaigning than a whole new approach, it’s continuing to steadily change what an election campaign on the ground looks like.

A good chunk of my time has also gone on the media: either talking to journalists about stories they have picked up from my tweets or blog posts or doing interviews and appearing on political news shows. In both cases this has only happened because the Internet opens up new channels for communication between journalists and others, thereby allowing an ex-party staffer like myself to interact with the media in a way that wasn’t possible pre-Internet.

The number of such bloggers and tweeters who interact with the media is relatively small, so this isn’t so much a reshaping of media relations in a more open and participative manner as it is allowing the creation of new and different (for want of a better word) elites. There is a small indirect opening up of the system in that now person X can pass a story to blogger Y which is then picked up by journalist Z, when X is much more likely to know a blogger than a journalist. That is though more an interesting detail than a major shift.

Where there is more of a major shift going on is on the sources of political commentary and expertise. On a range of topics, including most notably opinion polling, the most informative, balanced and accurate commentary during the campaign has come from political bloggers acting independent of media outlets.

Whilst it used to be the case that outlets such as New Statesman and The Guardian provided expert psephological analysis with details not available anywhere else. Now it’s all online. It’s not just online, it’s better — because it’s often written by people such as Anthony Wells with a real technical expertise that hard-pressed journalists no longer have the space to cultivate.

In a microcosm, that is the paid-for newspaper industry’s problem: why should people pay for newspapers when more and better content is available for free online?

The online world does more than simply take audiences away from newspapers; it also undermines trust in them. The U.K. newspaper industry has been notoriously reluctant to enter into “dog-eat-dog” coverage — with titles steering clear of criticising each other.

Now, however, there is an increasing volume of online criticism which itself over time has a drip, drip impact on the status of newspapers, but also can encourage other media outlets to at least pick up on the fact that others are criticising their fellow titles.

Stories such as mine pointing out the absurdity of a Daily Express poll report, the inaccurate hype of a Reuters piece on a new poll, or the polling questions paid for by The Sun but whose findings ran against its editorial line and were never published in the paper will not in themselves have any newspaper editor quaking in their boots. But a wise newspaper editor will realise the long-term impact of it being frequently pointed out how stories are wrong or facts placed to one side when they don’t fit with an editorial line. After all, when ever did a declining industry managing to make a success out of a business plan based on “let’s make the public trust us less”?

Meanwhile, party administrators shouldn’t be sleeping too comfortably either because the Rage Against The Machine pro-Lib Dem Facebook group has double the paid-up membership of the party. Never before in British politics has an online grouping got even close to the size of a party, let alone double it. Had I predicted that earlier this year, even the keenest Internet enthusiast would have probably doubted whether it would happen. And yet, despite the TV domination of the campaign, it did. There’s a lesson there about how political organisation could develop in future.

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