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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.