Social media + politics = "narcissistic tosh"
The line that stood out last night at the City University debate on new media and the general election was from BBC political editor Nick Robinson. He called it “self important and narcissistic tosh”. As a political journalists he has to know a soundbite to give one.
His point, however, echoed through last night’s debate: what was the real impact of social media and the general election? And was it supplanting traditional media?
The answer given by panel members appeared to closely correlate with what the person concerned happened to do for a living:
between those working in digital and those in politics.
So from Robinson and the BBC his perspective was clear. He argued from the off that the real big moments in the coming general election campaign would be delivered not by social media but by TV. Well he would say that wouldn’t he?
Be that as it may when fellow BBC presenter Evan Davis, who was chairing the event, asked for a show of hands at the end of the evening 80% agreed. They thought TV would have the greatest impact and only 20% said social media.
As luck would have it the debate enjoyed great timing as it coincided with the news that the BBC, ITV and Sky had agree the ground rules with the three main political parties for the live leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election.
Robinson followed up his “narcissistic tosh” line by telling the audience that he had given up reading comments on his blog as few he said were left by real people looking for answers. That’s right given up.
seemed to upset DJ Collins, Google’s head of corporate comms, who thought Robinson had committed was some kind of lapse in
online etiquette. But the thing is Robinson is right (mostly). My
experience of political blogs from involvement with a left blog called Harry’s Place is that the comments section can (but by no means always) descend into ranting, raving and general abuse and it becomes difficult
when you have 100 to 150 comments to wade through.
underscored was the nature of the people actively involved in online politics in any meaningful is that they are largely political hacks,
activists and supporters of one variety or another. Most people or voters do not Twitter, blog or read political blogs. I know pretty shocking.
And so the real and consistent impact of social media is as an organising tool. Labour’s #mobmonday is I think one example of that. It is great for getting people together, for organising campaign activity.
has perhaps been (I think) an idea fostered in certain parts of the media since the Barrack Obama campaign that
social media is political magic and has opened up political campaigning (and it has) but not
to the degree that some think. It is still no huge in the UK. Obama’s campaign had a bandwagon of energy and idealism. The kind we saw in 1997, but are not seeing now.
Rishi Saha the conservative head of new media made
a good point here saying that the Obama campaign was in business terms
like a start-up company. It had no baggage and could do things
differently. It could be like Lastminute. It was not an
established political party like Labour of the Conservatives, which are
more akin to the likes of a corporate beast like Thomas Cook. Mainstream political parties can not start suddenly
acting like start-ups because of the arrival of social media. It isn’t
quite in their DNA.
Labour blogger Rupa Huq (sister of TV presenter Konnie Huq) went a little further on this point and argued that she saw social media much better suited to single issue
campaigns. And in my mind Obama was a single issue campaign — get that candidate elected.
As evidence of social media opening up politics people always cite Iran. Last night it was the turn of Collins to do this. Again I think these are akin to single issue protest movements enthused with anger and a desire for change. And social media’s real impact in these campaigns has been hotly debated. The Evgeny Morozov (“Why the internet is failing Iran’s activists”) and Clay Shirky (“The Twitter Revolution: more than just a slogan”) pieces are worth checking out on Prospect.
That single issue campaign idea was one echoed by
Robinson who pointed to the success that the Prime Minister’s wife
Sarah Brown has had on single issue campaigns such as maternal
mortality. It is no doubt she has become a social media political star,
the biggest of any in UK with her 1.1m followers on Twitter. Sarah Brown though is not going to get Labour elected, but she can have a real impact on certain issues.
And so back to TV
Saha and Matthew McGregor from Blue State Digital talked email. This is still the main driver for
political parties and it is probably the level that the masses become
involved as they did with Obama where 13 million signed up. I recently wrote about how the Tories were leading here but most were still failing to properly integrate email with their social media.
email database was used to drive donations. And you know where many of
those donations went don’t you? That’s right it was spent on buying TV
airtime. Between June 6 and July 26, Obama’s campaign spent $27m on TV
Those ads led to many more people to become Facebook fans,
Twitter followers and even more to sign-up to Obama’s email database,
which in the end was estimated to have raised $500m.
The whoosh moment
One other phrase I liked came from Prof Ivor Gaber of City University who put it like this: Twitter is anarchy – it can explode, go whoosh and you don’t know where it will take you. The trip will not always be to your liking. This was echoed by McGregor who said that while politicians might try to bypass traditional media they
could fail and really fail well (Gordon Brown and YouTube?). That
failure comes down to the issue of control which is part of the issue
about social media: it is often not there. You don’t know what people
will do with content once they have it as an airbrushed David Cameron found out.
The YouTube moment
Last point really Gaber, Robinson and Collins are pointed to the prospect of a YouTube or web moment taking off and spreading like wild fire. It could be a pic captured via a cameraphone or uploaded onto YouTube. That uploaded video could of course be a mash-up or just a couple of scenes taken from the leaders as they debate on TV. As while TV might rule prime time it has a close relationship with social media.
Final bullets from each speaker
Nick Robinson: Big election moment could be five or six YouTube clips.
Google DJ Collins: Online video or the camera phone catching a moment of drama such as the one that destroyed George Allen, the former Republican senator from Virginia best known for using the racist slur “macaca”.
Ivor Gaber: Photoshop – the way it has changed the game and destroyed billboard poster ads like Cameron’s airbrushing.
Labour blogger Rupa Huq: Still old fashioned door step campaigning that counts; single issues.
Matthew McGregor: Email still rules — build and develop that email database.
Rishi Saha: Data (email) search and Google. You need the information there for voters to find.