Close-Up: Election Insight - Will social media decide the General Election?

Russell Davies takes a look at the array of digital tools politicians have at their disposal to turn clicks into votes this spring.

Social media tools will not win the next election. Even social media experts agree on that. Elections are complicated things, national decisions built from complex interplays of multiple factors. We don't know - we can't know - exactly how important each element is.

But it's equally clear that social media, or new media or digital, or whatever we call it, will have some effect and that lessons learned this year will be carried forward to the following election. So, it seems like a good time to look at the digital electioneering landscape and see what's going on. A warning, though: it won't be Twitter wot won it. It's way more complicated than that.

YouTube

I'm one of the many pundits who've blithely predicted a YouTube election. Video is a powerful persuasive tool - British politicians don't get to buy TV advertising, so they'll use YouTube instead. David Cameron made early hay on YouTube with WebCameron - though the fact that he was doing it was probably more significant than what he was doing. And many UK politicians probably looked hopefully at the Obama campaign on YouTube; all those inspiring messages of hope and change spontaneously created to cheer him on his way.

Unfortunately, this is just the first of many examples where the Obama election isn't a useful parallel. Can you imagine a wil.i.am or Obama Girl video for Gordon Brown or Cameron? We're just not in that style of election at the moment. In fact, if you look at what's likely to get traction on YouTube - outrageous behaviour, visual astonishment, humour - it looks more like a place of danger for politicians than opportunity. They might get caught saying or doing something dumb, and they're unlikely to take the risk of trying to do something funny. If anything's going to get political traction on YouTube, it won't be official party activity.

Facebook & Mumsnet

The Tories are believed to be devoting considerable resources to Facebook, a smart move as it's the new-media tool most like a regular marketing vehicle and they can make good use of their deeper pockets. There are millions of voters on Facebook - not just the new-media chattering classes - and they can be reasonably segmented and targeted. The big question will be whether the money can be directed effectively towards the key marginals and constituencies where the parties really campaign.

We can also expect all the parties to be creating groups on specific issues (or nudging people into creating them). This is a particular strength for the Liberal Democrats, who've always been good at local "roots" activism and seem to be transporting some of that strength to Facebook. Other large, more mainstream communities such as Mumsnet are also getting a taste of political influence as all the parties are very happy to turn up for an interview and a chat. This can be unexpectedly revealing as the politicians slip out of the predictable discourse of Westminster and are suddenly confronted with questions about their favourite biscuits.

Twitter

Who'd have thought it? John Prescott is fantastic at Twitter - a man famous for bouts of incoherence turns out to be a master of 140 characters. And his use of Twitter illustrates some of the political opportunities that exist now. It's not a mass medium - millions of voters aren't following politicians on Twitter - but journalists and opinion-leaders are, so it becomes a tool for instant rebuttal, for pointing at stories, for nudging the agenda and for letting some of the informality of private conversation spill into the public realm. Which, of course, alarms the parties too, making them worry about Twitter gaffes dominating the headlines. So, at the moment, the Tories are trying to keep a lid on candidates Tweeting, while Labour and the Lib Dems, behind in the polls, seem willing to take more risks. Who's right? It may depend on the slip of a texting finger.

Blogs

The Tories have a huge lead in the blogosphere, perhaps because blogging came to prominence during their years in opposition. And blogs and communities such as Iain Dale and Conservative Home have influenced and developed party thinking, becoming in some ways as important as the traditional party supporters in old media. And these writers and communities are a powerful asset for the campaign - motivating and directing party workers and activists, beating up the few left-wing bloggers and acting as informed but informal spinners. If discipline slips and the party and bloggers start to differ substantially, then things could get ugly, but that's probably more likely after the election than during it.

The boring stuff - e-mail and community

If they were only allowed one digital tool, I suspect all the parties would plump for e-mail. It's not sexy, but it's the backbone of modern campaigning - that's the big lesson all the parties learned from Obama; e-mail is a fantastic way to get people canvassing and get the vote out. When supplemented by membership sites such as MyConservatives and Labour's Membersnet, the parties can reach out to supporters and give them tools to campaign with their friends, neighbours and networks. That's why all the parties like micro-campaigns such as Labour's pre-Copenhagen "Ed's Pledge" or the Conservative "Return My DNA". They can make a point, reach some new people and gather e-mail addresses at the same time. It also helps them deal with the fragmented nature of digital media. Campaigning has to talk to hundreds of different audiences in hundreds of different ways.

The sexy stuff - mash-ups, apps etc

Talk to a hardened politician about this stuff and they'll dismiss it as nonsense - unseen by the average voter, trivial compared with a couple of minutes on the news or a national poster campaign. They have a point. But the new techy stuff is newsworthy in itself - so it can create a story or spin one in a particular direction. Thus the spoof poster campaigns such as MyDavidCameron.com can serve to undermine the original message and turn a media moment for one party into a rebuttal moment for another. They should also be a chance for parties to explore what messages resonate with the public - they may not be creating the messages themselves but they can start to understand how people are thinking about them.

We're seeing the mobile and data-oriented tools emerge for electioneering; there'll be specific campaigning apps and digital tools for canvassers and activists, but perhaps more interesting are things such as the Asborometer - an app that can tell you the density of Asbos in your area. It may not have a party political agenda, but you can imagine how this sort of tool will start to affect the doorstep canvassing conversation.

And, of course, there's a ton of stuff I haven't mentioned. Political SEO strategies, user-generated content, online polling, the list is almost endless. You have to feel for those men and women gathered in party HQs trying to make sense of this stuff, under time and money pressure, with big stakes in play.

Fortunately for the rest of us, we get to watch and learn and then do the most important interactive act - vote.

PREZZA'S RECENT TWEETS

Instead of paying UK tax for 10 years, funding schools and hospitals, Ashcroft's been funding the Tories http://bit.ly/akX1zE #cashcroft 2.23am, 1 March

Today's George Osborne's appearance was brought to you by the word 'change' and the number '2' - point lead! He jus says nothing but Change! 2.06am, 28 February

So this is the CHANGE we'd get with Cameron. His school had 3 toilets. 1 gents, 1 ladies & 1 for chauffeurs! http://bit.ly/d34xfA #manctweet 1.02am, 27 February

Tory lead has now reduced from 16% points to just 6 since The Sun backed Cameron. Keep it up Rebekah! 3.25pm, 24 February

Here's the proof of Coulson's bullying that Ben Brown said was 'unfounded!' http://bit.ly/6XMJ8W 4.00am, 22 February

Breaking: Patron of National Bullying Helpline Prof Cary Cooper really damning of Pratt's behaviour on Five Live - "wholly inappropriate!" 2.55am, 22 February.

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