Social media: is it an election winner?

The rise of social media or networking has presented problems for politicians on how to engage with a more informed public. Will the next election be won or lost in the blogosphere? No one seems to know, but what is certain is there are votes to be won out there
Conservative leader David Cameron engaging with voters via his webcam

Can social media make or break an election? With a hung parliament predicted by many recent polls and political commentators, voting margins between the main parties may well be tight and there is a lot of talk of how social media could make a difference.

One aspect of this will be how political parties, particularly the party that forms the next government, engage with voters and potential voters through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

At a timely social media summit in the heart of Whitehall, Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, pointed out the importance of communications. He said previous elections had been won and lost through email, producing good literature and direct mail. "The internet changes relationship with voters," he said. MPs are now much more accountable and online media enables voters ask a lot more questions, "especially about my expenses," he quipped.

But Hunt welcomed the change - particularly the change to access to information, "There are no more political masters, voters are just as informed if not more informed than politicians. We must learn from constituents not just give views."

Television will play a significant role

Tom Watson, former parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office, was more sceptical about social media making or breaking the next election. He believed that television will play a significant role, especially with the much anticipated live debates between the leaders of the three main parties.

"Issues are still at the heart of the election," Watson said. While social media and the internet, might draw people in with narrow interests and allow personal freedom, the election would, again, be about television, he told the audience - but "social media will give the election more texture".

After the election, however, social media will help drive change, according to Watson, who added that he was unable to understand why more MPs are not on Facebook of Twitter, given the usefulness of these media as tools.

Paul Waugh, deputy political editor on London's Evening Standard newspaper, revealed that to be a serious blogger you have to post at least four times throughout the day - and then stay up to speed on Twitter. Hunt responded that this could mean ministers would be in danger of spending all their time communicating, with no time for policy.

Watson said that the other problem was that when a story breaks on the internet, on twitter feeds, blogs etc - ministers have to stay calm and in touch with their community. He said the chancellor Alistair Darling is a master at keeping a cool head and staying perfectly calm during a crisis.

The power of new media was best exemplified by one MP with email addresses for a quarter of his constituents, which posed a conundrum - should he go to the local paper with a story about cuts at his local hospital, or should he email his constituents and post direct to his blog?

Power of new media

The power of new media to affect public services was also highlighted at the event, particularly in the handling of the snowy conditions during the recent worst winter for 30 years. There were stories about how the public, instead of phoning their council and complaining about untreated roads, actively became involved in the operation and helped councils by 'tweeting' when they came across empty grit bins or untreated and dangerous roads and footpaths.

This is just one example of the scale of people power. Social media sites are able to corral individual actions into one homogenous campaign making a large amount of small voices more powerful. Users of public services expect transparency and efficiency when connecting with an organisation, and now they have a very powerful platform to air their views, by connecting with like-minded people who have experienced similar problems. In the face of such a campaign, public organisations can no longer brush off such complaints

The consensus of the event was that social media may not offer an assurance of immediate victory, but parties are definitely assured of defeat if they don't manage and engage with these forms of communications properly.

It promises to be a fascinating campaign.

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