The Internet election?

by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2010

Cross-posted from Liberal Democrat News:

“This will be the first real internet election,” was the oft-repeated claim made in the run up to 2010’s national poll. So how did that claim stack up against the reality?

Some will point to the hype surrounding the leaders’ debates as evidence that television remains the dominant force. Ten million tuned into ITV on 15 April, and ‘Cleggmania’ gripped the nation for the next fortnight. Meanwhile, the principal gaffe of the campaign – Gordon Brown’s ‘Bigotgate’ – was captured not by a citizen journalist, but was an old-fashioned ‘hot-mike’ incident caught by Sky News.

Does this prove, then, that the “first real internet election” was a flop? Absolutely not. Just as this was the biggest television election in history, so it was also the biggest internet election in history.

For example, Nick Clegg’s official Facebook.com site now numbers almost 70,000 fans, five times the number it was at before the first debate, while @nick_clegg’s Twitter.com messages are followed by three times as many, over 42,000 people.

Most astonishing of all, though, was the surge in the independent Facebook group, ‘We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!’ – LibDem2010.com – whose creators (who helped engineer an unlikely Christmas Number One hit) took the party under their wings. Within a few short weeks the group had grown to over 160,000, getting on for three times the total membership of the Lib Dems.

True, we have no way of knowing how many of those registered as fans ultimately voted for the Lib Dems. But let’s not diminish the fact that a small band of volunteers engaged with a new and different group of potential Lib Dem voters, who themselves created some insightful and motivating (and, yes, some scatalogically satirical) videos and poster-art which they willingly shared with their circle of friends, with many contacting their local parties to become active recruits as a direct result.

The phenomenon of LibDem2010.com pointed to two obvious but important lessons for all parties. First, that such campaigns are always much more credible when they are unofficial: their very independence gives them an aura of authenticity which even the most cynical find hard to resist.

And, secondly, the power of humour to earn an audience. The Labour-supporting MyDavidCameron.com – the site which enabled the public to create their own spoofs of the Tories’ posters – proved to be an internet sensation, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of Conservative advertising budget at a stroke.

The Lib Dems, rather daringly, were the only one of the major parties to pioneer a viral marketing campaign with Labservative.com, a pointed reminder of the eery similarities of successive Labour and Tory governments. The first video, introducing ‘Gorvid Camerown’, became something of a YouTube cult, garnering tens of thousands of viewers. (Alas, Labservative.com is a victim of the new coalition government, its web history deleted to spare the party any virtual blushes).

This was the first general election ever for LibDemVoice.org, the leading independent website for Lib Dem supporters. During the campaign as a whole, over 200,000 individual readers visited the site. Our biggest innovation during the campaign, Rank.LibDemVoice.org, enabled the public to find out how liberal or authoritarian their MP was based on 10 key Parliamentary votes, ranging from ID cards to freedom of speech to trials without juries. Thousands visited the site, and were encouraged to share the results – good (usually Lib Dem) or bad (usually Labour) – with their friends via Twitter and Facebook.

We were also the first to be able to poll over a 1,200 party members in the days after the election through our members-only discussions forum – Forum.LibDemVoice.org – with results showing the overwhelming ensorsement of Nick Clegg’s decision to open discussions first with the Conservatives (90% in favour), and then of the decision to enter coalition government itself (91% in favour). Our poll results ensured there was a degree of mass consultation with members even during the negotiations, and put rather a dampener on the media’s attempts to suggest the leadership faced a grassroots’ revolt.

Did the internet change the course of the election? At a national level, probably not (or at least not much). But at a local level – whether for council or parliamentary elections – email and Facebook, blogs and Twitter, websites and YouTube can each make a real difference to an individual candidate’s campaigning efforts, offering them the chance to motivate supporters, and communicate directly with voters. None of these are a replacement for regular Focus leaflets and door-to-door personal contact; but they are an increasingly essential addition to our traditional pavement politics.

One final prediction to close: 7th May, 2015, will be the biggest internet general election yet.