Social democracy

It’s now more than six weeks after a landmark election in modern British Politics. It resulted in the first coalition government for almost 70 years – something scarcely imagined a few months ago.

It was also tipped to be the first social media election. As the dust settled following the election and its aftermath, I attended the Value of Journalism Event organised by the BBC College of Journalism, where I heard a panel of journalists, politicians, pollsters and political activists debate the digital election.

Here are some observations from the event and my reflections on political parties and journalists’ use of social media during the election:

At the last general election in 2005, blogging was in its infancy and Twitter and YouTube had yet to be invented. Five years on and parties are using social media experts to help them connect with voters, while broadcasters are using social media to engage with audiences in new ways. But in both cases, there is still some way to go.

Broadcasters have used social media in many imaginative ways during the campaign. It has made sourcing contacts easier, with broadcasters posting on Facebook groups requests for footage of people locked out of polling stations.

Liveblogging was a major part of election coverage this year with Channel 4 News using Cover It Live to gather ‘tweets’ from correspondents’ Twitter accounts. The BBC’s own liveblog used embedded video and audio clips along with journalists’ comments.

Twitter itself has become an important tool for journalists. Its finest hour came courtesy of another election first – the televised debates. While Cameron, Brown and Clegg traded verbal blows, broadcasters provided live commentary over Twitter using the hashtag #leadersdebate.

Broadcast journalists broke news from constituency counts through Twitter. The platform also provided stories of its own including the #nickcleggsfault campaign against media attacks on the Liberal Democrat leader and the sacking of Labour’s Stuart MacLennan for posting offensive tweets.

This highlights two of the effects of social media on the election. The first, as noted by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg at #bbcvoj, is that social media has massively speeded up the news cycle. MacLennan’s sacking came just hours after his tweets had been reported. Also, had it happened in 2005, the ructions caused by Gordon Brown’s “Bigotgate” gaffe might have only been felt the following day when the tabloids hit the doormat, rather than within seconds of the comments being caught on the mic.

Another issue with social media is you can’t control it. One example of this was the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to encourage its prospective MPs to use Facebook to reach out to voters. This backfired when it looked like a coalition deal would see the party’s campaign for a fairer voting system abandoned and activists made their feelings known about the issue on party leaders’ own Facebook walls.

Yet, few have managed to harness Facebook as successfully as Twitter. The election campaign was a missed opportunity for broadcasters to engage with the 20 million users of the UK’s most popular social media platform.

At the #bbcvoj event, Labour’s Douglas Alexander said that many of the best attacks by social media on parties’ campaigns came from grassroots activists not a centralised machine. “There’s a corporate view and there’s a group within the public wanting to tear down that corporate view,” he said.

Veteran pollster Robert Worcester told the delegates at #bbcvoj that 2010 was never going to be an internet election and I am inclined to agree.

My view is that in this election, social media was eclipsed by the televised leaders’ debate and that social media, for all its potential as a voice for the grassroots, was predominately used in a top-down way by both politicians and the mainstream media.

But by the time of the next one, broadcasters, politicians and the public should have worked out how to use social media to its full potential. Unless of course, social media is usurped by another digital innovation.

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2 thoughts on “Social democracy

  1. Richard says:

    I’d add that not only was social media usurped by the debates, but the entire rest of the campaign was too. The whole cycle of the national campaign was building up to each debate, then analysing what happened in it, then building up to the next one and so on. Labour and the Tories didn’t really bother to do the traditional daily press conferences, which all three parties had done each morning in every modern election until 2005.

    That’s not to say there weren’t some interesting attempts at local coverage (see this article about hyperlocal coverage of the election – But whether any of it had much impact on the results is, while impossible to judge, pretty doubtful I’d say. And I speak as someone who ran lots of local coverage in a seat which was only decided by 103 votes!

  2. rosieniven says:

    Thanks for the comment Richard. I remember at the 2005 election, blogs were starting to have an influence. There were grassroots campaigns to twin Labour and Lib Dems through digital media in an attempt to vote out key party figures, but these initiatives were limited.

    This time round there was a lot of political blogging and tweeting, but they only reach a political and media elite. I think hyperlocals, mobile technology and Facebook have the potential to provide a more meaningful connection between politicians and voters. But grassroot activists must provide the missing link between their party and the public.

    In the next election, I’d like to see mainstream media work more with hyperlocals on coverage. Maybe a project for local bloggers could be to join together to make their individual blogs tell the story of the next election?

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