It was traditional media that did it – the impact of TV on digital campaigning

This is one of the series I’ve been writing for Search Engine Watch about the UK general election:

It was traditional media that did it

After decades of talking about it, finally the 2010 British general election is featuring televised debates between the party leaders. The first one, held last week, has blown open the campaign with not only a winning performance from the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, but also a subsequent surge in the polls that has taken the Lib Dems to first place in some of them – for the first time since the 1980s.

The most exuberant headline (based on a genuine poll finding) was in the Sunday Times, a newspaper part of Rupert Murdoch’s News International group. The group has been heavily backing the Conservative Party but even so ran the headline “Clegg nearly as popular as Churchill.” That would be the equivalent of a U.S. newspaper running the headline “Ross Perot nearly as popular as George Washington” in 1992.

With two more TV debates to come, the result of the general election is wide open — as is the shape of the British political system given that the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have finished third in every general election since the early 20th century.

Even an enthusiast like myself, when it comes to using the Internet in politics, has to admit that this story is primarily about old media. It was a TV debate followed by opinion polls and then TV and newspaper coverage, which has blown open the campaign — and, most likely, the final two TV debates will primarily shape the result.

The Internet has only had a role at the margins. Facebook and Twitter were both widely used by traditional media outlets, by the political parties, and by ordinary citizens to gather, exchange and see the views of others during the debate. Many sites ran live blogging services (often using CoveritLive which, like Facebook and Twitter, was the dominant technical choice in its niche).

The aftermath of the debate spawned various humorous responses online, such as the David Cameron anecdote generator, which makes fun of the Conservative Party leader’s frequent reference during the debate to people he had recently met. Meanwhile this whimsical mini-film is also an apt summary of the debate:

The phrase “I agree with Nick” was uttered several times by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the debate, presumably in a pre-planned attempt to appeal to Lib Dems to switch to Labour. However, given the dynamics of the debate, it turned into the memorable catchphrase of the event — and one that flattered Nick Clegg. Almost inevitably, the hashtag #iagreewithnick was spawned along with branded merchandise via self-service online stores.

A boost was also given to the Liberal Democrat party, with £120,000 of donations arriving in the 24 hours after the debate and many people signing up on social networks:

  • Nick Clegg’s Facebook page, number of fans: +99 percent
  • Nick Clegg’s Twitter profile, number of followers: +23 percent
  • Liberal Democrat Facebook page, number of fans: +37 percent
  • Liberal Democrat Twitter profile, number of followers: +8 percent

Note how much more Nick Clegg’s own social media profiles benefited than the party’s, even though British politics is less about the individual and more about the party than American politics. The biggest boost, though, was to an unofficial Facebook group, We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!

The group’s name pays homage to a previous social media wave that aimed to stop the regular cycle of pop songs from TV talent shows making it to number one in the charts by instead driving a different song to the top slot.

With the energy and enthusiasm that often comes more easily to unofficial social media efforts, the group has run up more than 85,000 members – more than the Labour and Conservative Party Facebook pages combined. The group is also now larger than the party’s paid-up membership – the first time a social network gathering has grown larger than a political party in the UK as far as I’m aware.

So while it may be old media that has opened up the campaign, the legacy could yet be a large long-term boost to the reach of new media in politics.


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