A digital election?

This year’s election was touted as an ‘anything can happen’ event and, true to predictions, there were more than a few surprises. Before polling day we had the first ever televised leaders’ debates, resulting in a surprise surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, consistently beating Labour to second place in the polls.

And the surprises didn’t stop there – once the election was called, the Lib Dems actually lost six seats, while the Greens had their first ever MP elected in Brighton Pavilion. We saw the first hung parliament since 1974, the first coalition since 1945 and the first significant number of Liberals in government since 1932.

But the excitement of these truly historic events meant another precedent was largely overlooked – the election was also the first since the appearance of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, while YouTube had existed for barely two months at the start of the campaign.

Not that this got past mobile phone network Orange. They felt confident enough to call it the UK’s first ‘Digital Election’ and commissioned a report to investigate.

Simon Grossman, Orange’s Head of Government Policy said: “It’s amazing to think that in the last election in 2005, the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and smartphone apps didn’t exist, or held very little resonance. It’s clear from this research that the use of technology by the political parties has made politics more accessible and interactive– and ultimately more interesting to a younger audience.”

Their research showed almost a quarter of young people aged 18-24 were actively engaged in the election through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, with eight in ten expressing an interest. This is despite the age group being the most traditionally associated with voter apathy.

More than 65 per cent of Facebook users in the UK are under the age of 35, with almost two fifths of these between the ages of 18 and 24. And, according to CheckFacebook.com, the site represents for more than three fifths of internet users in the UK.

The huge potential of these numbers was not lost on the Electoral Commission, who worked with Facebook during the campaign so users signing into the site would be asked whether they had registered to vote. If they clicked ‘no’, they were redirected to the Commission’s website, where they could do so online.

And with such a huge ‘market’ for votes, political parties have wasted no time in getting involved – more than a quarter of a million Facebook users have signalled they ‘like’ the pages of one of the three main political parties and/or their youth movements.

The Conservatives appear to be leading on Facebook with 115,550 supporters, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 96,500 and Labour trailing behind with less than 64,600.

The Tories also lead in Twitter’s parliamentary presence. According to @tweetminster, out of the 195 MPs currently using the service, 40% of these are Conservatives, with 38% Labour and 16% Lib Dems.

But with great opportunities comes great scope for embarrassment. Gordon Brown received a stinging attack by then-cabinet minister Hazel Blears with her “YouTube if you want to” jibe after the PM spoke to the country through the video website.

This was itself ripe for parody, with one blogger (keeptonyblairforpm) adding “The lady’s not for gurning” – a reference to the many uncomfortable and inappropriate smiles Mr Brown made throughout the broadcast.

But although the internet appears to have successfully mobilised the youth vote, it does still beggar the question: if this was, in fact, the ‘Digital Election’; why did it take a TV debate for Nick Clegg to get noticed?

Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at Sheffield University said: “Much of the political content on the internet is just preaching to the converted. I just don’t believe the vast majority of people have any time or interest in Twitter or blogging – it’s a bit more middle class really.

“But public interest in the debates was absolutely incredible. Peoples’ views were altered by the expenses crisis, giving Nick Clegg an open goal. Before the debates, the public had never really understood what the Lib Dems stood for.”

Nonetheless, the influence of digital media is growing – in April 2009 it was blogger Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) who ended the career of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damien McBride, by posting leaked emails McBride had sent on plans to smear senior Tories and their families.

But blogger Harry Cole (aka Tory Bear), 24, admits this power is aided by traditional print and broadcast: “Blogs have more power now, and any MP would be foolish not to take them seriously. They can bring you down. There is also more media attention, as the blog entries and tweets on Twitter end up across the papers. They are now part of the news cycle.”

Sarah Baumann, 23, a Labour supporter from Leeds, agreed, saying: “Politics has been able to extend its reach to the previously apathetic or disenchanted voters through social networking sites, forcing all candidates to confront the murky issues within their manifestos.”

But some young supporters dispute the idea of a ‘Digital Election’. David Grundy, 25, a Conservative supporter from London, said: “It didn’t change that much in actual campaigning, apart from making it faster to organise campaigns and canvassing events. Facebook is not all that useful in gauging support either because it is very skewed towards younger people, some of whom can’t vote and the rest who can’t be bothered.”

It is clear that, while the power and influence of social media in politics is growing, it still has far to go where traditional media and campaigning techniques are concerned.

In a perhaps unintentional echo of Karl Marx’s famous maxim on philosophers, Stephen Shakespeare (@stephenshaxper), CEO of YouGov, tweeted a warning to ‘Digital Election’ enthusiasts on May 11: “Twitter makes politicians seem more accessible. To matter it needs to change their behaviour.”