No Net Gains for Party Politics

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News technology pages, and Alan Connor kindly reminded me of his excellent analysis after the 2005 election that made a similar point.]

The next British General Election will almost certainly be called the first ‘real’ internet election, on the grounds that the ‘internet election’ of 2001 happened when relatively few people had home network connections, while the 2005 poll took place before the social media explosion brought us Facebook, MySpace and a growing belief that anyone who is tired of twitter is tired of life.

One unfortunate consequence of this will be that anyone who claims a passing acquaintance with the network world will be called upon as a pundit, commentator or ‘expert’ to interpret the parties’ online activity and tell an eager public who is ‘up’ and who is ‘down’ when it comes to internet campaigning.

I know this is the case because I’ve already been asked myself, and a well known technology consultant of my acquaintance is being lined up for the role too.

However such people should not be taken too seriously by those concerned with the eventual outcome.  Although I run the danger of talking myself out of a job, I want to say clearly that the election, whenever it happens, will not be an internet election in the sense beloved of headline writers, over-enthusiastic news editors or those with campaigning tools to sell.

It will, rather like the 2008 US Presidential Election, be a general election in which online tools and services are used by those seeking to influence the electorate and by those charged with the responsibliity of deciding which candidate to vote for.

It will be an election in which a significant proportion of the population gets information about the parties, the candidates and the issues from online sources, and where they use social media tools to share information and debate the issues.

And it will certainly be an election where those who want to campaign actively for a particular party or candidate will use the internet to do so, often to the point of irritation and annoyance for those who want to get on with their normal activities during the brief period when are encourage to think about how we exercise the five seconds of democratic power we get given twice a decade.

But anything that happens online will only matter as part of the broader context of electioneering, and party political broadcasts, news coverage, posters, leaflets and meetings will be just as significant.

Sadly, this will not stop stop the online campaigning. Once the election is called I firmly expect Twitter to be overwhelmed with twibbons and campaign pledges while flame wars break out on Facebook and the US owners of these global services watch, bemused, from the sidelines and wonder what has happened to excite all their UK users.

Some candidates will see their chances of election vanish under the onslaught of a YouTube campaign featuring video of them in an unflattering light, or saying something that contradicts the party platform. Others will react badly to the pressure coming from online and lash out via email or tweet, only to suffer the consequences.

And the parties themselves will spend vast amounts of money, time and volunteer energy on websites, groups, mailing lists and the other paraphenalia of the modern online campaign, partly because of a superstitious belief in the influencing power of the Facebook status update, partly because everyone else will be doing it and opting out would be too risky.

But their work will largely go unremarked upon except by the army of commentators and pundits – myself included, I fear – who have to find something about the network to talk about on TV or radio.  It will not shift many votes or have a marked influence on the actual campaigns, and much as I would like questions of network neutrality, online surveillance and penalties for unlicensed downloading to be major campaign issues, I’m enough of a political realist to know that the argument about the economy will matter much, much more.

Of course just because the internet will not be the defining tool of the various election campaigns doesn’t mean it won’t be used and it won’t be important. But in the brief period since the last UK election we seem to have crossed an important threshold when it comes to the way we use the net in our daily lives, and as a result we have passed the point were we could have had a real ‘internet election’.The network, with all its many flaws and problems, is now part of daily life for many people, whether because they use it at work or school, have a computer at home, lug a laptop and 3G dongle around wherever they go or simply update Facebook and read email on their mobile.

A lot of people are using the internet without thinking about the fact that they are using the internet, and if they use the net during the election they will think about the politics, not about the technology.

This is as it should be.

Some years ago I used to teach arts organisations about internet marketing, trying to help them make some sense of the emerging network world. After a while I realised that any organisation that spent time developing an ‘internet strategy’ for their marketing had already failed, because a good marketing strategy was one that saw network tools as another collection of channels to reach audiences and potential audiences, not something in isolation.

An effective arts marketing strategy should incorporate all the online elements, not try to separate them out and treat them as somehow special. It’s the same for political activity, and with luck those currently devising the electoral strategies will not be thinking about setting up an ‘internet unit’ but will be considering how to reach swing voters and how to ensure that their message is properly disseminated, and they will choose the right technology for the job irrespective of whether or not it is digital or online.

So don’t believe anyone who turns up after the event to claim that it was ‘the internet wot won it’.

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“It’s the Sun Wot Won It”

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One Response to No Net Gains for Party Politics

  1. Mark Pack says:

    You make many very good points, though I think you are a little unfair to *some* political campaigners and their use of the internet. There are some who’ve been trying out different things for many years now and, fortified with seeing the real results in real elections, will be ploughing away once again at the next general election.

    On past experience, I’d say that most of them will be prioritising local email lists above other tools – less glamorous, doesn’t get the media hype, but when done well very effective.

    Of course whether or not I’m one of those wise souls is perhaps left to others to judge 🙂

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