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Will Social Media Help or Hinder the UK General Election?

Stephen Logan

by Stephen Logan on 14th April 2010

Following on from my earlier post on how influential the Internet will be in the UK general election, I thought it fitting to take a closer look at social media’s role. This is already shaping up to be one of the dirtiest general elections in recent times, so what effect, if any, will social media have on the final outcome?

Having already claimed its first casualty, Labour candidate for Moray, Stuart MacLennan [see: Election 2010: Labour sack Moray candidate Stuart MacLennan over Twitter row | Daily Record], social media is primed to become a major staging post in the battleground for Parliamentary control. Whilst the electorate actively discuss viewpoints, politicians have to market themselves without courting controversy; which, as the hapless Mr. MacLennan found, isn’t always straightforward.

Even before the electioneering was in full swing, politicians were under the microscope for their social media habits. Another labour MP, David Wright, was accused of calling Tories ‘scum-sucking pigs’ via his Twitter account (which he claimed was hijacked) [see: Labour MP and a Twitter riddle over the 'scum-sucking pig' insult to Tories]. So whilst the opportunities for spreading a positive message and gaining notoriety within a community are there, social media also has a very dangerous and murky underbelly; leaving nowhere to hide for the callous or careless.
Electioneering on Social Media

Tomorrow we have the first of the Prime Ministerial debates. Whilst it is beamed to millions of homes throughout the UK by way of ITV, it will also be debated via live forums hosted by the aforementioned channel and can expect a fair airing on the pages of Twitter and Facebook. Gaffes, glaring mistruths and triumphs will be recorded by thousands in the constant conversation that is social media.

Building interest in politics is no bad thing. In fact it is essential for maintaining democracy. However, policy and debate could soon be overshadowed by rumour and mantra spamming; this could end up damaging fairness and undermine the positive aspects of electioneering online.

Positive Engagement of Facebook Users
Facebook have been proactive in their support for the general election. They have launched Democracy UK, in partnership with the Electoral Commission, to encourage their 23 million UK users to sign up and vote. This of course is hugely beneficial.

Whilst voter apathy is an ongoing issue; the influence of social media – in cooperation with television, radio and news print – can help to encourage people to visit the polls. Undecided voters can also use the sites to access fan pages, engage in real-time discussion and watch election videos that may be relevant to their concerns. This is the new face of electioneering.

The Risks of Open Public Forums and Constant Scrutiny
But social media isn’t without its dangers. Accounts are regularly hacked and misinformation can spread like wildfire. Human errors can occur as well of course, as mentioned previously. But those with malicious intent are given a free rein to do as they wish. Insidious comments and tarnishing reputations from within are just a couple of the problems faced by modern MPs.

Scandal is hardly a rarefied commodity in politics [see: UK MP Expenses Scandal Continues to Generate Buzz]. But with MPs still getting to grips with the potential of social media, with varying levels of success, the door has been opened to the speedy spread of negative press.

In a controlled environment such as that provided by Yoosk [see: Parliament Becoming Social with Online Question Time], or the Facebook/YouTube linkup, whereby users can have questions answered by party leaders, politicians can use old school techniques in the new media environment [see: Facebook and YouTube users to grill party leaders]. This is safe, it is proactive, but is it really maximising the potential of social media?

Whether social media will have any measurable effect on the outcome is open for debate. However, this will be the first general election where this new media is being tested. In the future I think we can look forward to some more targeted and effective online campaigns; for now, politicians are testing the water as are the electorate.

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan is our Senior Content Marketer at Koozai. With four years experience writing exclusively for the search engine marketing industry, he has amassed a wealth of industry related knowledge. He will be breaking news stories and contributing compelling SEO related stories.


  • Grit Kuehle 23rd April 2010

    After reading your article I thought you might be interested in a new Facebook application we’re just launching called “Float your Vote” at http://www.floatyourvote.com.

    Float Your Vote allows individuals and brands to create their own “campaign” based on any issue, be it serious or frivolous (e.g. “Extend the London Congestion Charge Zone”, “Save BBC Radio 6 Music”, “Bring back free milk for all school children” etc), and then allows people to vote and comment on the campaign. The application also gives political parties the opportunity to respond to these campaigns and offer their own opinions on particular issues.

    As well as allowing individual Facebook users to create their own campaigns and invite their friends and political parties to comment, Float Your Vote is also a platform for commercial brands, charities, pressure groups and other activist organisations to promote and gain support for their own agendas.

    When an individual or organisation creates a new campaign, it appears in their Facebook newsfeed. Campaigns then spread virally as people vote and comment on them and encourage their friends to do the same.

    The main political parties are being invited to post their own official responses to campaigns.

    The application is launching featuring a number of major charities, including the NSPCC and Save the Children.

    Diana Sutton, Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at NSPCC commenting on the application said; “We think Float Your Vote is a great way to spread the word about our “I Stand For Children” campaign, which is about getting every candidate in the upcoming general election to make child protection a top priority.”

    Branislava Milosevic, Head of Multimedia at Save the Children, commenting on Float Your Vote said; “We want the next government to make ending child poverty at home and abroad a priority. We’re hoping that, along with all our other activity, having our campaign on Float Your Vote will play an important role in garnering public support for our cause and influencing policy.”

    If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them. You can find Float your Vote at http://www.floatyourvote.com.

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  • Essi Pöyry 14th May 2010

    Interesting post, Stephen! As you said, social media can work as a mean to fight political apathy, which obviously is good for the democracy. Even with its downsides, I think social media provides more opportunities to parties and politics in general.

    What we noticed in our study about the General Election and social media is that this time especially the tv debates drove the social media discussion. Thus, the real challenge for the parties is to master the more traditional means of marketing (like debates) and, at the same time, use social media to amplify and repeat the message to reach more and more people.

    Please find a copy of the study here: http://www.whitevector.com/blog/2010/05/10/2010-general-election-the-role-of-social-media/


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