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A little bit of politics

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:00 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Now, this may come as a bit of a shock but over the next couple of months this blog is going to contain, in the words of a 1980s comedian, "a little bit of politics".

Ben EltonI'm taking up a temporary position as the BBC's digital election correspondent, with the job of examining how politicians and voters are using new technology in the run-up to the general election. I will still keep an eye on the rest of the technology landscape, but the blog will gradually become infused with the political scene.

"Digital election correspondent?" I hear you ask. "What's that when it's at home?" Indeed, there have been hours of debate about the title. Focus groups were convened, consultants consulted, and marketing experts commissioned - at some expense - before we zeroed in on that nomenclature. I'm joking, of course - we umm-ed and aah-ed a bit, but nobody came up with anything better to describe the job.

So is it going to be a "digital election"? Will the methods which helped Barack Obama into the White House arrive here and transform British political campaigning? Will it be a Twitter or Facebook election, and will candidates abandon old-fashioned practices like knocking on doors in favour of sending the voters a YouTube video? Even before the campaign has started, there have been dozens of debates about this subject - and scepticism seems to be mounting.

There are doubts about just how big a role social media played in the Obama campaign - good old-fashioned e-mail seems to have been the key weapon - and about whether methods which work in the United State where voters and money coalesce around invidual politicians rather than parties can translate to the UK. At an event last week, my colleague Nick Robinson described much of the conversation about new media as "self-important narcissistic tosh". He has a point - obsessive conversations on Twitter between political groupies seem likely to pass much of the electorate by.

Screengrab of David Miliband's Twitter feedNevertheless, I do think that new technology will mean this election will be very different from the previous one - and there will be plenty for me to get my teeth into. In 2005, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and smartphone apps either did not exist or had yet to have much effect; this time, the parties and the voters will all be working out how to use them to their advantage. The effect of technology will be felt in two areas: the organisation of the campaign and the acceleration of the news cycle.

Plenty of resources are already going into using new-media methods to organise campaigns, though that doesn't mean the old methods will fall by the wayside. "We'll still be knocking on doors," one senior party official told me, "it's just that we'll be organising the knocking-on-doors via Facebook".

The parties are convinced that using social media can help them to mobilise supporters who need just a little nudge to contribute a bit more effort.

One example: the Conservatives and Labour are building their own social networks that enable telephone canvassing to be done from their own homes by members with the results fed into a central database. The idea is that political activity becomes just as easy as creating a group on Facebook, or updating your Twitter status.

Screengrab of Conservative Party's appMobile phones look certain to replace clipboards as the tools used to record canvas results. So far, two parties - the Conservatives and UKIP - have released iPhone applications, with others promising to follow. The Conservative app allows users to ring all the numbers in their phone's contacts list and ask them which way they will vote.

But we're also seeing how web-savvy politicos can quickly disrupt their opponents' campaigns. Labour launched a website to promote its election slogan A Future Fair for All - but omitted to buy up the .org domain, so futurefairforall.org is now inevitably being used by an unnamed group to undermine the party's message. And is it worth any party spending money on poster campaigns when, as with "mydavidcameron", they can quickly be subverted by online pranksters?

Social networking is also helping to accelerate the news cycle - so this time a Prescott punch or a Jennifer's ear will be old news within hours. There was a good example of this a couple of weeks ago when the BBC reported that staff at Downing Street had contacted a charity called the National Bullying Helpline. Within minutes of the story breaking on a Sunday afternoon, various bloggers and Twitterers were deconstructing it, asking whether the charity had breached confidentiality and then uncovering its links to a business which advises on bullying.

Politicians are using new-media tools to try to wrest control of stories from the media. But this makes it all the harder to keep internal tensions under wraps. At the weekend an influential Conservative blogger Tim Montgomerie called for a return to "red meat Toryism". His thoughts and the comments they inspired may have made uncomfortable reading for David Cameron. Similarly, a post about the way candidates are selected on the Labour blog Labour List shone a light on tensions within the party.

Some will doubtless use the technology to create a digital Westminster village of as little relevance to the electorate as the old one, and there will surely be plenty of storms in micro-blogging teacups receiving extensive coverage across the political web. But there is also the possibility for voters to grab the steering wheel and use new media tools to take the campaign off in a new direction. Now that would be exciting.

Still, while it may not be a Twitter election, the micro-blogging service will be a useful place to monitor all things political. So I've set up an account called @BBCRoryCJ which you can follow for news about politics - and technology.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I love the idea of politicians using new technologies, however there is also a problem here. Lets say that a politician uses tweeter or facebook to give opinions or answers to his fans. Or to send them a "newsletter". But is it really he who writes it all or just his PR staff? Because i am more interested into his opinion than that of his PR staff or his party. Especailly since here for example we do not have the full proportional system so we basically still vote for person and not so much for party (although votes still go to party and based on them they can get adidtional seats.

  • Comment number 2.

    gregor3000: raises a good point. Will the new technology just be a faster conduit for yet more spin instead of substance?

  • Comment number 3.

    If the main parties (all of them) keep going as they are at the moment, then they're going to find using these services has a sting in the tail.

    Why? Because the politician's view of Twitter/Facebook is not the same as that of 99% of the users:

    Politician: Wow, this is a really good way for me to get our new ideas out to the public as quickly as possible.

    Twitterer: Well ok, but you never respond to anyone.

    Politician: But it's not for that, it's for getting the message out quicker.

    Twitterer: *Stops following, logs out*.

    Social networking = listening and talking, NOT just listening.

  • Comment number 4.

    Personally I'd rather politicians and businesses left social networking well alone, it's for socialising, not politics or selling stuff.

    Sadly big business has hijacked Facebook and other social networking sites because they are a useful tool for peddling their latest wares.

    Politicians it seems want to do the same.

    If they want to get their message across then fine, set up a website where politicians can do that, but separate from the existing social networking/video sites, then people who are interested in politics can go and see what the spin is all about whilst the rest of us just carry on as normal.

    What would get more people making votes (which is obviously the aim with the uptake of digital communication means) is an on-line voting system, i.e. the ability to log on to a site, make your vote and leave it at that. No effort required on the part of the "disaffected" non-voters, and quite an easy collection of data. It can also be made quite secure to avoid tampering with the results.

    Sadly last time I knew anything about it such a system does not exist here in the UK, but I am prepared to be proved wrong on that.

    Also, given the tendency of the British public to make votes for Strictly, X-Factor, etc. a phone line voting system, free of course, could also be employed.

    But then we'd get Cameron and Brown repeatedly hitting redial...

  • Comment number 5.

    I think new media being used as possibly "a faster conduit for yet more spin" is inevitable, but one of the differentiators could be about making it appear as personal as possible, as the Obama team did. Some analysts compared the web pages of Obama's and Clinton's groups down to the font and the results were quite interesting.

    As far as technology is concerned, it appears that it is more readily accepted as a campaign means rather than an actual voting tool. I watched with keen interest a video clip of the advisor to the Indian PM talking passionately about advances like mobile voting. I think we're way away from that in the UK, where even mobile commerce is still on drawing board. Well it's not just conservatism (and I don't mean Tories), that's holding that back, but perhaps a realisation of the consequences of what could happen if things went wrong. Political voting is quite different from voting on Strictly Come Dancing, as we saw with that awful row between Al Gore and George W. Bush when essentially technology was put on the spot.

  • Comment number 6.

    Just means more and more d@mn spam to delete.

  • Comment number 7.

    Unfortunately @ravenmorpheus2k (post no.4) completely underestimates the risks of online voting. A quick google search on electronic voting security issues turn up: http://avirubin.com/e-voting.security.html which amongst other articles shows that we are a very long way from e-voting for anything other than the utterly trivial.

  • Comment number 8.

    All the parties are fighting for the votes of the 18-25s. The majority of these people have never voted (except for X-Factor) and so getting these people to turn out for your party in marginals could swing the election massively in your favour. All it needs is for one YouTube video or facebook app to "go viral" for one party, and the election could be in the bag. The parties all know this and so their all doing the social media thing. However, so far they're all doing it wrong. They're taking there messages and just putting them out there - or they're seeking to "engage" young voters in an "interactive conversation" by asking people for their views.

    None of this will work. They have to use the tools in ways that will make young people sit up and take notice. This means jokes, games, funny quizzes, and funny videos that are about the things that the 18-25s are interested in - or even just to make fun of their opponents. These are the things that people circulate and link to. If one of the two big parties can achieve this, they'll win a handsome majority.

  • Comment number 9.

    Their time would be better spent on understanding how technology affects the general public rather than concentrate purely on their own spin and PR.
    Just look at the debacle involving Phorm and BT. Mass illegal interception of communications that occurred years ago now and we are still waiting for somebody - anybody - to be punished for this criminal activity. And the less said about the digital economy bill the better.

  • Comment number 10.

    "7. At 12:18pm on 09 Mar 2010, AgRG wrote:

    Unfortunately @ravenmorpheus2k (post no.4) completely underestimates the risks of online voting. A quick google search on electronic voting security issues turn up: http://avirubin.com/e-voting.security.html which amongst other articles shows that we are a very long way from e-voting for anything other than the utterly trivial."

    ----

    Actually I don't underestimate the risks of online voting. I'm well aware of the risks.

    And if enough effort was put into it I'm sure the majority of risks could be overcome.

    Correct me if I am wrong but didn't Estonia successfully use online voting in 2007?

    In 2007 Estonia held its and the world's first general elections with Internet voting available from February 26th to 28th. A total of 30,275 citizens used Internet voting, which means for every 30 eligible voters one of them voted through the internet.

    Can you imagine the impact on elections if 1 in 30 voters in the UK cast votes by voting online?

  • Comment number 11.

    This article misses the most important point about these technologies. It's not whether politicians use youtube, email,social networking or whatever sites to get there message across but how all these things combined give a fairer share of power to the little guy.

    Let's be completly honest. Until,we had the Internet it was much easier to pull the wool over the eyes of a large proportion of the electorate. Not any more.
    These technologies will make very little difference to the votes mainstream politicans get. Why ? Because the spin they will deliver via these new channels is the same spin we get fed daily by the BBC and the other mainstream media.

    It's what the mainstream media do not tell us that will make the difference in this election. Of course I can only speak for myself but I'm being perfectly honest when I say, I've learnt far more about politics and what is happening in our very corrupt world from the Internet than I have from the BBC or elsewhere.

    At times one has to laugh at the feeble attempt our current politicians go to
    to try and get our vote. It's laughable because you see them attempting to use the same old spin and rhetoric and they are too stupid to see it no longer rings true.

  • Comment number 12.

    Actually I don't underestimate the risks of online voting. I'm well aware of the risks.
    And if enough effort was put into it I'm sure the majority of risks could be overcome.


    Smart people that know their stuff seem to disagree with you about this. What are your grounds for believing that they're wrong? Technical grounds, that is, not simply 'Estonia did it'.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hey BBC. Is it fair that my comment (no ll) awaits moderation for 40 minutes but comment number 12 is moderated in 5 minutes ?
    I think this proves my point about the content of my comment.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think you're over reading. I'm pretty sure the system switches an account to reactive moderation once it has a track record of not getting deleted too often.

  • Comment number 15.

    "12. At 5:15pm on 09 Mar 2010, _Ewan_ wrote:

    Actually I don't underestimate the risks of online voting. I'm well aware of the risks.
    And if enough effort was put into it I'm sure the majority of risks could be overcome.

    Smart people that know their stuff seem to disagree with you about this. What are your grounds for believing that they're wrong? Technical grounds, that is, not simply 'Estonia did it'."

    --------

    I don't have to justify my belief that it can be made to work at all to you or anyone. Just because I may not have any technical grounding in the matter does not mean I am not smart, which is what you are implying, yeah I can read between the lines my good man.

    "Smart people" put the procedures and technology in place for Estonia did they not? Would you disagree with them?

    Estonia had the foresight and vision to do something to engage their voting public and give them the opportunity to vote online, instead of (or as well as) hijacking Facebook and uploading political spin. It's "smart people that know their stuff" who disagree with such ground breaking ideas here in the UK and keep this country held back and in a state of paranoia!

    We have not heard of any fraud, hacking attempts, or any other security breaches in the Estonian election in 2007, I'm sure that a journalist would have found out about it and made it known if such things had happened and I'm fairly sure that Estonia will employ the same technology again in their next general election.

    But I'm sure "smart people that know their stuff" will say their doing it all wrong and are leaving themselves open to fraud, hacking, digital attack etc., because they know better...

  • Comment number 16.

    just because I may not have any technical grounding in the matter does not mean I am not smart, which is what you are implying

    Not at all. I'm saying that you don't know what you're talking about, which seems pretty safe ground since you've clearly told us that you've got no grounding in the subject.

    It seems to me that you have a touching (or simply touched) faith that everything will be OK, based on absolutely nothing, and despite being fully aware that people that know better than you say otherwise.

    You indeed don't have to justify your, apparently irrational, belief to anyone, but you do have to accept that if you don't you're going to be left looking rather foolish.

  • Comment number 17.

    My david cameron have said they wont be satirising the next tory poster, knowing its had its day. Still, this hasnt the tories from making their own p-poor fake poster sites. What will be next? The posters have already been turned into a 3d game (http://www.politicalgaming.com%29 and other copy sites are springing up.

  • Comment number 18.

    "16. At 1:58pm on 11 Mar 2010, _Ewan_ wrote:

    just because I may not have any technical grounding in the matter does not mean I am not smart, which is what you are implying

    Not at all. I'm saying that you don't know what you're talking about, which seems pretty safe ground since you've clearly told us that you've got no grounding in the subject.

    It seems to me that you have a touching (or simply touched) faith that everything will be OK, based on absolutely nothing, and despite being fully aware that people that know better than you say otherwise.

    You indeed don't have to justify your, apparently irrational, belief to anyone, but you do have to accept that if you don't you're going to be left looking rather foolish."


    ----

    Ok you want to play that game, tell me, what technical background do you have?

    I work in ICT (for a BlackBerry reseller as part of their technical staff, if you must know), I encounter security procedures on a daily basis, what do you do that gives you such an insight?

    Or are you just trolling as usual Ewan?

    Estonia are considering M-Voting now. Lithuania are almost ready to introduce online voting (E-Voting)

    How many countries doing things in this way does it take before people start to take it seriously?

    Sure I don't know the technical complexities inside and out and I don't have any formal qualifications in the subject of online security but I know enough to make a reasonable comment on E-voting being the way forward.

  • Comment number 19.

    Yesterday my 14 yr-old son received a letter from the Tories inviting him to "win £5000 and support the Conservative Party" by entering their weekly draw - something, which in the small print at the bottom of the letter, he can't do till he is 16.

    He was bemused but uninterested by the mistake. I, on the other hand was wondering how they could make it. Where did they get his address and details?

    Then I remembered hearing you talking about their forays into social media.

    There have been a couple of online digital accounts which he signed up to prematurely. Eg MMORPG games... and he reminds me that, intriguingly, he was 12-pretending-to-be-14 when he signed up to Facebook.

    Have the Tories been buying lists of digitally active "16" year olds from the likes of Facebook?

 

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