There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the impact new technologies will have on the upcoming UK general election. There is widespread belief that social media sites, mobile phones and online video will impact the ways people vote in May (or June) of this year, but as to how these gadgets will influence people’s voting patterns, is still up for debate.
Some people have pointed (cringingly) to Gordon Brown’s YouTube address, the increasing number of MPs and government departments with Twitter profiles, and the online blogging platforms of the major parties, as evidence of an increasingly tech-savvy political class that will wage it’s election battles on virtual platforms, rather than in constituencies and on television debates.
But the problem with this is that most of government (with some important exceptions) just don’t get social media! If it’s seen as a free broadcast channel, it is unlikely to have any additional impact, beyond that of the traditional press, and may further disconnect them from the people they represent, if used solely to disseminate messages. The groundbreaking nature of these technologies is in their ability to connect people and facilitate conversations, two traits which have traditionally run against the grain of mainstream politics.
Technology will have some impact on this coming election, but not (primarily) because politicians are starting to get on-board.
Technology will impact the election most significantly because of what is being said by those using it outside of the political institutions. The fundamental shift that social media is starting to enable, relates to what blogger and academic Hannah Nicklin describes as a ‘wikipolitic’; the process through which public opinions develop a collective expression via various online platforms, and are then manifested in action – by people themselves or the politicians who are mandated to represent them. Fundamental to this, is the breakdown of the interface between people and political institutions (initially through online technology) and gradually, the connection of people – including politicians – to each other in the development of the policies that impact our lives. (Read Hannah’s blog for more on ‘wikipolitics’).
My thoughts on David Cameron (or Gordon Brown, or Nick Clegg, for that matter), can now float into cyberspace and immediately connect with the thoughts of those who agree with or oppose them – on a truly mass scale. For that matter, if I was to capture a video on my mobile of one of the above leaders contradicting a key campaign message, or come across an email that included potentially offensive language about a particular people or constituency, I could share them with the world within minutes … or say, if I – or you – had an especially relevant take on one party-or-another’s election manifesto, we could become the tipping point of the 2010 general election!
…Or… Or… Or…The list could go on…
So when we talk about the impact technology will have on the upcoming election, I recommend turning our social microscopes away from the press-released YouTube videos of Parliament and Downing Street, and towards the places where people are discussing the issues that will affect them. To the Twitter feeds, blogs and viral videos that are increasingly providing the narrative of life in Britain in 2010 and what we want the people we vote for to do with the power we have given them.
Of course, ‘wikipolitics’ and ‘e-campaigning’ only matter, insofar as they can enable greater communication and discussion of political ideas; we can’t let new technology sweep away the importance of sound policy. Many factors will influence this – like every other – election; I’m interested in how we, as people, can play a more central role than we are often credited in playing, as we decide who will lead this country into this next phase of history…
Liam is Learning and Development Officer (Campaigning) at NCVO, he is chairing the Social Media workshop at the Campaigns Conference