For the third general election in a row, the run-up is seeing numerous meetings and articles asking whether this election will be the first internet general election.
However, much – in fact, nearly all – of the discussion falls into two traps which are common across political journalism in the UK. First, an undue focus on the central, national picture and, second, an undue focus on the novel.
Ask those involved in organising internet campaigning for any of the major parties about what really matters and you’ll get two answers repeated. They repeatedly – and rightly – emphasise the importance of the internet for local campaigning and they also emphasise its importance for the equivalent of plumbing and sewage systems in a political party – that mostly hidden infrastructure which is vital to effective operation.
If you look at the film clips put up on YouTube by any of the main parties, only the most successful get more than 10,000 views. Yet it takes 10 million votes give or take a bit to win a general election. There’s just a complete mismatch of scales.
But look at audiences at the local level and they are often equal to a significant proportion of the constituency electorate.
The balance – or rather imbalance – between local and national audiences also comes through in a calculation I worked out a couple of years ago. In constituencies with well-developed local Liberal Democrat websites, for every one visit made to one of the party’s national sites by someone living in the constituency there were three visits to the local site.
Local is where the online audience is. Yet local is not where the punditry is usually. That is partly for understandable reasons; it is much easier to keep track of what parties are doing online with their national websites than to delve in to the hundreds of different local constituencies and their numerous different stories.
The national media has moved over the last decade to understanding that campaigns are not all about national speeches and Westminster press conferences, and that what happens on the ground in constituencies is key to the results. That same move however has not yet been made when it comes to understanding the internet’s impact on political campaigning.
Returning to the plumbing and sewage systems analogy, there are again understandable reasons why the media give them relatively little attention. It’s harder to get access to the sort of information needed to make such coverage meaningful and we, the consumers of the media’s output, overall do have a love of stories about the new and the dramatic rather than about the boring and the incremental.
Add it all together though, and the reality of how the internet has and is changing political campaigning adds up to a rather different picture, one I’ve sketched in more detail here.