A Facebook Election: Revisiting my analysis

Below is a post I wrote for the BBC College of Journalism blog back in January about the UK General Election. I thought it would be interesting to follow up on the numbers in terms of facebook fans and twitter followers.

I could write another full post on whether this was *the* social media election, and hopefully I will do so in the near future. But what I want to point out now is the jump in numbers in terms of Facebook fans and twitter followers. This shows that these sites did attract supporters during the election. The Conservatives jumped from 14,037 fans to 108,574 in a four month period. It will be very interesting to see whether the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition are able to harness this support during the process of governing. As many commented of Obama, he failed to translate his huge popularity on these social networking sites when he became president, disappointing many people who believed he would usher in a new way of garnering support for presidential policies.

This is what I wrote back in January…..

Take a look at the number of fans on the Conservatives’ Facebook pageNick Clegg’s Twitter messages or the comments on Labour’s YouTube channel and you might conclude that 2010 will be the UK’s first social media general election.

Indeed, January began with a rush of such speculation about the electoral role of theinternet and social media. It’s an easy line to take – but the reality isn’t so clear.

Social media has the potential to affect the election in two very different ways.

First, it could offer bloggers, citizen journalists, or even an eavesdropper in a lift, the opportunity to turn an unguarded comment into a viral sensation – and, in the process, to give mainstream news organisations a chance to reflect the campaign in new ways by involving the audience in telling the story.

Secondly – which I will look at in more detail here – social media could give political parties themselves new ways to campaign.

recent study sponsored by Hansard reported on the use of technology by individual MPs. It showed that 92% of MPs use email, 83% have a personal website, 23% use social networking and 11% blog. The report concluded that, while MPs are increasingly using technology, overwhelmingly, they are using these tools to keep constituents informed, rather than to engage them in a two-way dialogue.

As for the three main Westminster parties, each has a central website which prominently includes a menu of grassroots campaigning options (click to donate, volunteer, see events near you, sign up for email alerts etc), as well as offering ways for people to express their support for the party. In addition, each party has a presence on the main social networking sites:

The fact that these sites exist suggests social media could make a significant difference to how the parties operate in the election, but I don’t believe they are on course to realise the potential.

When you look more closely, there are already some big problems:

• There is confusion in terms of reputation management for David Cameron and Gordon Brown – with multiple false or hoax accounts. Nick Clegg appears to be more aware of this issue when you look at the number of social networks it appears on.

• Many of the more innovative ideas are not cross-linked, so the videos of people explaining ‘why they support the Conservatives’ stay hidden on the Conservative site. Likewise, Labour has an initiative called Labourspace.com where people are encouraged to suggest campaigning topics but it is hidden deep on its main site.

So what are the lessons for the UK General Election? Well, first, social media requires significant time and energy to build up a credible presence and to encourage participation and engagement. Online community management, as any successful brand or news organisation will tell you, requires focus and resources.

But the most important lesson from Obama’s campaign is how he empowered his supporters to campaign for him. He reached out to people who weren’t necessarily his core supporters, to turn supporters into doers, and doers into activists. He treated them as citizens rather than consumers.

In Britain, for the most part, the main Westminster parties’ political websites and social media sites are still preaching to the party faithful. It feels as if boxes have been ticked from an imaginary ‘Obama’s Guide to Winning Elections’, but the parties are still only scratching the surface of what is possible.

The technology exists to bring together an enthusiastic, passionate community. Encouraging peer-to-peer conversations has limitless potential for engaging new voters. To date, those tools have not been fully used. Instead of trying to reach floating voters or the apathetic and disenchanted in places where they are spending their time, the main campaigning sites appear to be working on the old broadcast model – providing information for supporters. And that’s what political websites have been doing for the past two general elections.

Treating supporters as passive consumers of scripted one-way campaign messages will have limited impact. When technology exists which allows a completely different type of campaign, it would be a wasted opportunity – and give us a General Election whose novelty is purely superficial.

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