Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Election 2.0?

If it wasn’t quite the Sun ‘wot won it’, it certainly wasn’t Facebook or Twitter in 2010. The General Election proved that social media did some novel and exciting things to encourage young voters out of their perceived apathy, but put simply, there was no Obama-like mechanism to galvanise the part of the electorate with most recent gift of suffrage.

Whereas the 2008 US Presidential election relied on micro-donations through sites such as Twitter, the UK election showed that the mainstream media were still capable of pulling off more campaign coups than many observers might have predicted. As early as 26 April, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones argued that “the bloggers hoped they would boss this campaign, breaking stories, setting the mood, and leaving the flat-footed old media types trailing in their wake…but the newspapers, and in particular the broadcasters have proved far more influential, with the TV debates dwarfing every other aspect of the campaign.”

In the run up to polling day, a convincing argument could have been made that social media would have an almost magnetic effect on the 18-24 age group. There were some political soap operas played out on Twitter, but nothing that turned changed the debate that the three main party leaders couldn’t manage by themselves. Stuart MacLennan found himself rapidly deposed as the Labour’s candidate in Moray after some not particularly probing digging into his Twitter history, but the moments of drama were undoubtedly the preserve of the big broadcasters.

In a more prominent way, the infamous vandalised Conservative billboards maybe signalled a more telling analysis of the way the internet influenced the election, or not. This episode of web anarchy, played out on Facebook, had such a humiliating impact on the Tories’ campaigning strategy that when faced with several hundred digitally manipulated spoofs they were forced to rethink their entire approach to posters - and soon got their own back with their unexpectedly positive approval of Labour’s depiction of David Cameron as 1980s misogynist cop Gene Hunt. It was party political poster wars which caught the popular imagination far more than any web based ‘get out and vote’ campaign - and a great many younger members of the electorate took part in the fun - but no-one yet knows whether these sideshows reflected a genuine interest in the campaign.

In an effort to prove its worth to the national debate, Facebook’s Democracy UK site appeared just weeks before polling day, a belated effort launched with the claim that “social networks will prove to be as central to political debate and the general election as the post, the phone and television have been in the past.” Although political parties have for several years had a presence on the site, amassed through online armies of ‘supporters’ groups, there was never a concerted effort by Facebook to engage its 23 million UK users in anything other than a running commentary on politics. On 10 March however, it linked up with the Electoral Commission to offer every single user the opportunity to download a personalised voter registration form, and has since attempted to track whether those who took part made the leap from clicking ‘I like this’ to marking a cross on a ballot paper.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Twitter was the place to be during the TV debates, particularly for younger, educated and liberal minded voters - making real time observations on the leaders personalities, policy statements and tie choices. From the insightful and serious, to the sharp and witty, Tweeters upheld a very British tradition of holding their potential leaders to account with a dose of healthy satire.

The evidence infers that younger voters were more discerning in their information preferences though. In Ipswich, a marginal seat that swung from Labour to the Tories at the election, two sisters give their verdict on whether the online campaign affected their vote:

Sarah Clark, 23, said: “Initially, I wasn’t going to vote because I knew nothing about the candidates. But I did watch the summaries of the leaders’ debates each morning before I went to work”

Sarah plumped for the Conservatives in the end, and specifically mentioned the Sun’s ‘dumb guide to the election’ which was published during the campaign - with no access to social networking sites at work, traditional channels of media were her primary source of information.

”I’m on Facebook but I didn’t use it to help me decide my vote during the election” she added.

Online communication, and social media in particular, made more of a difference to Sarah’s 18 year old sister, Angie, a first time voter who says she watched one of the TV debates, but wasn’t sure that newspapers helped her make up her mind in choosing which party to vote for:

“I found there was more information on Facebook groups which I’m a member of, and I went on a lot of the party websites to help me make up my mind”.

Research published in the days immediately following the election appears to reflect the mix of information sources young people preferred. A YouGov survey undertaken between 12-14 May suggests that 36% of 18-24 year olds used Facebook as a source of information during the campaign, with 34% visiting a political party or candidate’s own website - suggesting that social media was a crucial signpost in directing younger users towards more traditional web content. Most significantly, 31% of younger voters said that online information influenced the way they voted ‘not very much’ and 16% chose not to consume election content online at all.

This research, and others surveys since, hints that social media just wasn’t the game changer that it was expected to be. Until we have been presented with the overwhelming evidence that social media paves a direct route to the polling station for the younger electorate, well-established traditional channels may still prove to be what counts during those crucial four weeks.

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