political

Did the Internet make any substantial difference?

This post expands on my earlier What sort of internet election was it then? piece. Particular thanks to Nick Anstead for the idea I’ve expanded on and to Mick Fealty for offering me the guest post slot on Slugger O’Toole which made me sit down and write this piece. You can read it in its original location on Slugger here.

If the 2010 election can be summed up as “the XXX election”, it was first the TV election, with very traditional TV formats dominating. TV debates have been around since Sweden in the 1950s, and our debates were 90 minutes long – without adverts, fancy graphics, phone-in votes or cut aways to journalists broadcasting live from an empty street. This was old-fashioned TV taking on a new role.

It wasn’t just the TV election; it was also the election where the voting system did what it wasn’t meant to do. Proponents of first past the post like its habit of providing one party with an overall majority even when the most popular party isn’t that popular. This time it didn’t.

With traditional TV triumphant and the voting system failing to deliver on its own terms, how did the internet do? Certainly no-one is rushing to label it “the first internet election”. But – as Nick Anstead asked at a session we both did at the University of Salford – if 2010 wasn’t an internet election, what would one look like? Because, to extend his point, not only was the internet widely present, it also had an impact in many different ways – and if that doesn’t add up to an internet election, what would?

Opinion polling

Perhaps the internet’s most important contribution was in polling. Internet polling has both brought quicker polling in its own right and also helped move the phone polling industry into offering far quicker polls than used to be the norm. This meant coverage of the outcome of the first TV debate in particular was determined by what people told pollsters and not by what media owners told editors. Without the reputable poll results to box them in, would the partisan media have reported the first debate in the same way? Almost certainly not.

As essential as mobile phones

More generally, the internet’s impact on political campaigning was similar to that more generally of mobile phones. Both have become essential to the day-to-day working of people. Both speed up communication, eat away at the idea there is time off from work, are not quite as reliable as you’d like and open up numerous new possibilities. But neither have fundamentally reshaped events.

The rise of mobile phones has had numerous consequences: the phone masts on our skylines, the public phone boxes disappearing from our streets, the declining need to remember numbers, the ability to organise when and where to meet at the last moment, the massive numbers of text messages – almost all of which we read and read quickly. Thousands of people are employed in the industry and related endeavours.

Most high streets have more than one shop selling mobile phones or related products. Many people’s pensions are in part reliant on the profits from those firms. The list can go on and on. But whilst mobile phones have had many and diverse impacts, they have not fundamentally changed our society or our politics.

Similarly the internet has become essential, not just (to take James Crabtree’s terminology) in the visible form of websites, online petitions and Facebook pages but also in the invisible form of the online databases, the use of the internet to get artwork to printers and the use of email to organise when and where people meet for offline campaigning.

Pull the plug on the internet and you pull the plug on the ability of parties to organise and campaign – but the nature of those organisations and campaigns has not fundamentally changed.

New elites, not that different from the old elites

The internet has changed some of the faces on the political scene, as my own experience during the 2010 campaign shows. Blogging and tweeting certainly gave me a higher profile during the campaign – and one that wouldn’t have been possible in pre-internet days.

In the end, fun (and hopefully productive) though much of that was, having an ex-political party staffer appearing in the media is much more business as usual than a new way of doing politics. Nice though it was to be able to produce a spoof of a Tory election poster thanks to an online tool and see it reach a large audience via a reprint in the Daily Mail, expanding the pool of authors of political satire tweaked rather than revolutionised politics.

Looking at the range of Liberal Democrat pundits regularly called on by the media, there was a sprinkling of bloggers to vary the usual mix of MPs, ex-MPs and the like. It was a different circle of political faces, one opened up to some new – and very good – people, but still fundamentally a relatively small pool of people.

The political elite may be more open to new people joining it, but it is still an elite. This concept of an ‘open elite’ is one commonly found in other aspects of the internet, such as Wikipedia and open source software coding. In both cases anyone can start taking part, but there are hierarchies with some people more influential and more powerful than others. The elites may be more open to those with time and skill than traditional elites, but they are still elites.

Online blunders

Meanwhile, social media did give a few people their moments of unwanted fame with the smattering of occasions when a politician saying something foolish or offensive online was thereby exposed for all to see, with far more consequences than a muttered comment would have had in the past. Two candidates were dropped by their party and a third (an MP no less) faced a police investigation.

But in (another) sign of the continuing power of old media what was the biggest blunder involving a politician saying something unwise? Step forward Gordon Brown and the radio mike (first invented c.1949).

Despite numerous predictions – which I believed too – there was no major ‘gotcha’ event triggered by citizens catching politicians on film making a gaffe during the campaign, but citizen journalism had its moment on polling day evening. The photos, film clips and tweets of people unable to vote on spread the story quickly and got it into the mainstream media at a time when the media did not have much else to report. That in turn meant the problems got more mainstream media coverage than they would have – and increased the damage done to the reputation of our electoral system and the Electoral Commission.

The Facebook record

Whilst citizen journalism did not have its gotcha moment during the campaign, we did see the Rage Against The Election Facebook group ended the campaign with a membership more than double the paid-up membership of the Liberal Democrats. This was the first time the social media presence for a political party was as big as, let alone double the size of, the party itself.

However, the group earns a footnote as a record breaker rather than a headline for breaking the political system. As with so many other aspects of the internet’s impact, it was there, it was big – but it didn’t remake our politics.

The next first internet election?

The reason for that is in large part because many of those who have been asking “will the next election be the first internet election?” have been asking the wrong question. At the internal, organisational level the internet had already become essential prior to this election. What in effect many of the questioners (especially those in the style of Clay Shirky and Joe Trippi) have been hoping is that the internet will remake politics in a non-hierarchical style.

Whether politics – or other forms of human organisation – can be non-hierarchical is a very different question from what uses YouTube should be put to. It is one I am sceptical about, especially when you see how quickly structures have emerged in the communities growing up on tools such as Twitter which, at a technical level, are very egalitarian and non-hierarchical.

Where does this all leave us? In the end, the election was primarily about what politicians did and how the public voted rather than about technologies and techniques. And you know what? That doesn’t seem so bad at all.

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