Canvassing questions #4: Why politicians witter on twitter

When out canvassing, I regularly ask people to check out this blog or my twitter feed to find out more. Along with being asked how I make time for it all (and sometimes jokes about being a ‘twit’) I find that most people wonder why on earth politicians are wasting their time online.

It’s not surprising to see why some people feel bemused by it all. Take this week for example, and the headlines about the Labour candidate, Stuart MacLennan, destroying his political career after using Twitter to post abusive comments. So on that basis why on earth would politicians risk it? But in reality there is far more to gain in this digital age by getting online.

I recently wrote a (non-political) article about so-called ‘politics2.0’ for the agency I work for (see to try and shed light on this area.  As it was applicable to the discussions on the doorstep,  I thought it would be useful to reproduce it here (slightly edited) to help explain why the internet is deemed so important for this election and why it is only going to grow in importance in the coming weeks. So here it is…

The importance of the internet for this general election

John Markoff once said “The history of democracy also shows that democracy is a moving target, not a static structure”. This couldn’t be truer than when considering the impact the internet is having on politics around the World.

With the UK general election about to begin in earnest, we are entering an unknown time which may see a dramatic shift in the process of political campaigning, and the first time in the UK where online democracy may determine the results of the real democracy.

Learning from Obama
Ever since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, political and communication experts have debated how much of the success was down to the campaign and how much was inevitable due to the man.

Whilst the latter is likely to be the case, the campaign was groundbreaking in many ways, especially for the integrated use of social media (i.e. social networks like Facebook, video through YouTube etc) throughout. This was highlighted in the ‘Social Pulpit’ report by PR agency Edelman last year where they outlined the sheer scale of the campaign; which included over 2,000 official YouTube videos watched more than 80 million times through to 5 million “friends” on more than 15 social networking sites. With such a huge scale of activity reaching so many people it’s easy to understand why so many commentators were quick in believing the campaign was key to the overall success.

However, whilst the numbers are remarkable, it should not be forgotten that these activities were underpinned by traditional campaigning including direct email and phone canvassing which also reached millions of supporters. In fact, the power of the campaign was due to the close integration across multiple activities, without social media being considered in isolation.

Before Obama
Naturally with such a landmark success, the Obama campaign has become the most widely referenced political internet campaign. However, the earliest and most measurable use of the internet to swing an election was in 2002; the year when the late Roh Moo-hyun was elected, against the odds, as the President of South Korea.

The story behind the election victory was quite incredible. According to the Korea Times, on the day of the election at 3 p.m, the turnout was just 54.3 percent with Roh’s opponent heading for a clear victory. Like most countries, many young people were simply not turning out to vote, and with nothing to lose, Koh’s younger supporters began to visit chat rooms, forums, online communities and instant messages to implore their friends to vote. Over the course of the afternoon, the message had spread and tens of thousands came out to vote leading to Roh winning the election. Something I am sure every political party would dream of happening for them too.

What’s been happening in the UK
Not surprisingly, in the UK, the main political parties have been spending a lot of effort engaging online over the past couple of years.

WebCameron could probably be cited as the first really high profile foray into social media with the Conservatives leader David Cameron using YouTube as a way to gain insights into his personality as well as his politics.  Now a couple of years later and we see such channels being used extensively by national and local politicians from all parties.

Tweetminster report

Image from recent Tweetminster report showing number of politicians on Twitter back in January

A recent report by the website TweetMinster revealed just how much this aspect of the web has been infiltrated by politicians showing that there are literally hundreds of MPs and Parliamentary Candidates on Twitter, nevermind the many Councillors, political commentators and supporters.  This number is growing too, even last week William Hague joined Twitter (see The Times Online article about this here) – you can follow him using @WilliamJHague

The power of the #hashtags
Watching the election campaign unfurl has also shown how important this ground has become for the parties. In this 24 hour news cycle and the rapidity with which traditional advertising slogans, newspaper interviews and news headlines are forgotten as the next story arrives, means the impact of these traditional routes being gradually being sidelined by online debate and micro-headlines such as twitter, the appropriately named ‘#hashtags’.

These short phrases de-marked by the use of # are used to make it easy to follow or search for running commentary or in some cases to score political points. For example, if you ever watch BBC Question Time, and also use Twitter, you will find a flurry of tweets with the #hashtag ‘#bbcqt‘ every Thursday night.  This #hashtag allows anyone to easily see what everyone else is saying on twitter just by searching for the phrase.  It also makes it easy to put the tweeted comment into context i.e. in this instance that the tweet is about the debate on Question Time.

When it backfires
There are risks for those involved online though. Along with the Stuart MacLennan case last week, there have been many other political headlines sparked recently due to alleged hacking of politicians twitter accounts. All of which has highlighted the need for all involved to be more vigilant than ever. For example, Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman’s Twitter account was hacked and David Miliband’s was hit by a phishing scam.

All this goes to show that even those at the higher echelons of power, are still vulnerable to technical attacks, which can be easily used to distract from the focus on campaigning about policies or messages.

Extending to mobile

Conservative iPhone App

Conservative iPhone App

Even so, the trend towards greater inclusion of the web in campaigning is unlikely to weaken. Even in the short time since the Obama campaign, technology has moved on creating new opportunities for campaigning. Over the past year all three main parties have launched some form of mobile/iPhone App, ranging from Local Events through to functionality to ‘Call a Friend’ with the ability register their voting intention. In the case of the Conservatives App they even include a Swing-o-meter to show what impact a voting swing would have on the political make-up in parliament.

The bells and whistles on the apps are all interesting but the most important feature has to be their interactive manifesto and policy information. Not because of the functionality itself, but in who it is created for i.e. the real-world canvassers. The features are designed to act as a quick reference canvassers to respond to questions about policies whilst on the doorstep. As such, it could be argued they are the first ‘online’ tools dedicated to helping all those supporters and party activities who will be out knocking on doors and speaking to people on their doorsteps during the election.

Getting real
The internet has undoubtedly become an important tool for campaigners, but it is only one of many. It is also still evolving, with the rules of engagement still to be determined. It’s this fact that makes it so exciting to those involved in politics and social media alike. It’s also the reason why there will undoubtedly be many more high profile errors made and game changing moments in the coming months and years.

Back to the coming election, it is unclear if the buzz surrounding the online activities will have much impact on voting behaviour, or if the parties are currently just preaching to the converted. However, it can’t be denied that there is a huge opportunity to learn from the current activities and open opportunities for greater engagement with the general public post-election.

So with all the parties readying for battle, perhaps the only agreement we will see in the coming months will be that the internet cannot be ignored in reaching the electorate.

Personally, I believe the web is an excellent supporting tool to help shed more light on politicians, but this should never be used to replace old-fashioned face-to-face meetings with people.  And so on that note, I’m looking forward to getting back out on the doorsteps tomorrow and finding out more canvassing questions to respond to on this blog….

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