Will policy, or technology win the next election

Sorry for the flood of political posts recently, I’m sure they’ll dry up shortly!

Last night I wandered over to a debate hosted by Delib and the Henry Jackson Society on the issue of if “technology, not policy, will win Election 2010″.

The matter is topical thanks to the ongoing flood of debate within political circles about the rise of blogs, twitter etc and their effect on political campaigns. What was once very much a top-down process of commands from the center being actions by activists in local areas is increasingly being blurred by the rise of informed (and not so informed) internet chatter that can spread like proverbial wildfire within minutes.

As Guido Fawkes noted recently, we are moving away from a news system where stories are broken usually by common consent between the parties and has defined moments of incident to one where there is a constant flow of news commentary and gossip about the political establishment.

The ongoing change in how political news and opinion is being disseminated is what lead to the core of the debate – is the technology starting to become more important than the policy.

Certainly for those who are interested in politics, a heck of a lot has changed over the past couple of years in how we get information and in turn regurgitate that to our friends. What was once a process of sending an email with a weblink to a few friends can now be magnified where a single click of “retweet” on Twitter can broadcast the same short message to thousands of people in a second.

For me though, the pertinent issue is how the wider public see the issue. Is Mr Average really that affected by the gossiping and fighting on Twitter etc? Labour’s Twitter Czar, Kerry McCarthy pointed out that around 40% of the population lack access to a computer, so the online campaign is invisible to them. Personally I am a bit dubious about that statistic, but even if it is correct, then that 40% are still going to know people who are using computers and will be getting the echo that filters from the online world into staff canteens and the like.

A point made by Bruce Anderson, who seemed to be a bit of a luvvie with his many reminiscences about the good old days was that the electoral campaign itself rarely makes much difference to the outcome. Most people are already pro-this or anti-that and their views are unlikely to be significantly changed.

So, can online chatter really do anything more than just mobilizing the troops?

The Tories head of online, Rishi Saha made a good point that for all the chatter about the Obama campaign being dominated by the internet, some 90% of the media spend went to the old-media world of traditional television adverts. Online certainly mobilised the activists and fans – and raised a lot of money – but in the end the election was won in the old-media land.

In light of this, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones (who has considerably less hair than his BBC photo suggests!) raised a good question as to who holds the reigns of power within the political parties marketing departments. In the Obama campaign, the new and old media bosses were equal – is that the same in the UK? One point worth commenting on is that the Obama campaign was however very good at using email and had the necessary IT infrastructure to support such a system. My feeling from previous debates is that in the UK, too many MPs manage their own IT systems, when it really should be centralised. Not the political message, just the back-end computer systems.

An MP is going to get proverbial egg on their face when their home computer holding their email campaign flops over and dies, or more worryingly is hacked, or blocked due to geekish rules about email spam filters that only professionals understand.

Also, while the new media environment has the advantages of low-costs, speed etc., it is also prey to a very dark side as well.

The Mob

Considering how easy it is to forward messages and whip up a fury online, there is a danger that this can lead to vindictive mobs with their Twitch Forks and Burning Tworches rampaging against some slight or other. In that situation, the ability for the online managers at the parties to respond, and respond super fast is vital. Not just in putting out their side of the story, but also in ensuring that their online activists themselves forward the other side of the message as widely as possible.

A small example of this was the other day when a question on Twitter was asked in a way to throw doubt on an issue. I replied pointing out the incorrect assumption, and to his credit that person then rebroadcast my answer to everyone who would have read the original question. Not everyone does that, and so an incorrect presumption becomes more widespread.

A couple of years ago there was an online campaign to stop Westminster Council from banning outdoor drinking – except that they had so such intention. People blindly signed the petition, and even when the facts were known, people would respond with “well, they might in the future” to justify signing a petition they knew to be false – and maliciously created.

We, the members of the Mob have a power, but do we accept that we also have a responsibility?

Personal Space

A lot of people – and it horrifies politicians to hear this – are bored of politics. Generally, what is seen on the old media is the edited highlights of Prime Minister’s Questions or politicians avoiding questions in interviews. It looks antagonistic and venal. To then have the news media invade what is, despite its public nature, often considered a very personal space online, as people start forwarding political messages around or politicians broadcasting to social accounts could lead to yet more disengagement from the political process.

I personally love PMQ’s on a Wednesday lunchtime as it is good fun to watch – but I would be horrified with having that sort of argument going on all day, every day AND in my personal space. That is too much. Some politicians and activists though seem to treat the online space as just another channel to continue the good fight.

I follow a fair number of politicians online, but there are some I wont follow anymore. The ones who use Twitter to rage against the enemy all the time, or who do nothing but parrot out their latest press release or try to leap onto bandwagons as they charge past. It’s just dull.

I, like most people I know, are less interested in policy debate (and how can you debate a policy in 140 characters?) and more after the silly stuff, the gossip, the stuff we can laugh about down the pub. No one wants to be perpetually fighting the political fight, do they?

The best political commentators and politicians are the ones who mix a good dose of politics with the silly stuff. The Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh has carved a good line in reporting the gossip as well as the more serious stories, while the late much lamented Parliament Spy was starting a great job in conveying the really silly stuff that most people love to hear about.

The more of them we have online, then the more chance there is that people will be interested in what they have to say – oh, and they might pick up a bit of the sales message amongst the gossip.

To be entertained and informed in one neat 140 character package, what’s not to like about that?

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew France

    You’re right that the 40% figure is wrong. ONS say in their “Internet Access Statistical Bulletin 2009″ that “In 2009, 37.4 million adults (76% of UK pop.) accessed the Internet in the three months prior to interview.” So it’s a load of rubbish.

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