Nick Jones

Campaigning on the internet during the 2010 general election did not achieve the breakthrough which the political parties were hoping for but communication via the web ‘came of age’ for both the public and the news media.  Speakers at a London conference agreed that voting intentions were influenced by the rise in social networking and the emergence of Twitter as a significant source of information for journalists.

 ‘No Revolution Yet’ was the title of the debate and while the parties were disappointed by what they gained from the first ‘internet election’ there was growing evidence that the electorate at large had obtained information on line and participated quite extensively in political conversations on social media sites. The overall conclusion of a discussion chaired by John Lloyd, director of the Axess programme on journalism and democracy, was that the new media was complementary to the old media and that it added an extra layer of communication for potential voters who were connected digitally to political debate in far larger numbers than many people had imagined. Peter Barron, head of communications for Google in north and central Europe, said the political parties were having to face up to the fact that they were nothing like as successful as President Obama in exploiting the internet, but social media was ‘everywhere’ during the 2010 general election and the Conservatives had proved most adept in exploiting the web. Surveys showed that 61 per cent of voters got information about the election online and 41 per cent said that online information had some influence on their vote.   Nic Newman, a founding member of the team which developed the websites of BBC News, said the internet played a much bigger role than many had predicted because social networking sites provided the tools to allow people to engage in a debate.He said the statistics spoke for themselves: Half a million people were engaged in polling on Facebook during the election; one in four 18 to 25 year olds were commenting about politics on Facebook; and 1.8 million on Facebook said they voted in the general election.‘New media is complementary to old media...television provides images and what the web has proved good at is engagement’. Mick Fealty – author of Northern Ireland ‘Slugger O’Toole website – said he was struck by the way conversations on Twitter had reached ‘a critical mass’ and were influencing the reporting of politics.  He believed that political bloggers had played a part in convincing the media elite and the political parties that they would have to go ahead with the televised leaders’ debates.  Nic Newman agreed: although Twitter was largely the preserve of the ‘media elite’ who were feeding off each other, journalists in the mainstream media were using the site as a source of information. Peter Barron thought the Conservatives had been the most active online having ‘bought’ 10,000 political terms in an attempt to drive users towards the party’s website; on the day of the election it took over YouTube’s home page with a huge advertisement. He agreed that it was important to see if the internet could be used to find ways to generate a more informed debate on voting reform.   (Axess conference on the future of journalism, Frontline Club, 9.7.2010) END