Social media’s impact on politics, part two: where to find the big impact

Welcome to the concluding part of a two-part series about the real impact social media (or social networking) is having on politics in Britain. Last week I looked at the groups which face extinction; today it’s why pundits searching for the impact of social media on politics in 2010 are looking in the wrong place.

For the third general election in a row, people are lining up to debate whether or not this one will be the internet election; the election when politics radically changes in the face of the technological change that has already swept the world.

Here’s my prediction. When it comes to the end of the year and we look back to see what impact the internet has had on British politics, we will find that it had a significant effect but not where pundits are currently looking.

That’s because the punditry is about the run-up to polling day; the big impact will be after polling day.

At least one political party will be in major crisis over the summer. If there is no overall majority, then at least one other party – not just the Liberal Democrats, but quite possibly also the SNP and Plaid – will be facing regular tough debates over what it should do. And a third party will be in government but facing unpopular financial choices and with sizeable internal disagreements over which way the party should head.

It’s against that background that the ability of the internet to bring like-minded people together, helping them to find each other, to organise, to campaign and to publicise, will massively shift the balance of power within political parties.

We have seen some small tastes of that already: the birth of ConservativeHome in the battles over the rules for electing the Conservative Party leader and the role of bloggers in giving momentum and credibility to Chris Huhne’s first leadership bid in 2006 are but two examples.

It’s a question for another day why these abilities haven’t brought forth any significant new political forces fighting elections. But we are now close enough to polling day for it to be a pretty safe bet that this won’t happen in the 2010 general election. So far the new, internet based parties have only impressed with the dizzying fall from their heights of initial hype to the lowliness of electoral returns – at least for those who actually managed to end up standing candidates.

But it’s in the post-polling day internal maelstroms that these new abilities will really come to the forefront. Traditionally internal party debates and disputes have been fuelled from the top down: played about between Big Beasts with a supporting cast of MPs popping over to College Green. Not this time. This time, grassroots activists will be able to easily find others of similar views, wherever they are in the country and coordinate and campaign.

From the much under-rated power of email, through blogging and Facebook – and even Twitter – there will be a new pattern of power in those party debates.

It’s the ubiquity and familiarity of many of those tools – particularly email – which will give them their impact. Indeed, the more cutting edge the tool, the narrower its use and therefore the lesser its likely impact.

Or, to use the words of Clay Shirky from the same book as quoted in the first part of this series,

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviours.

The essential attributes of the general election campaign may run on traditional lines. The post-election battles will not.

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