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Social strategists or playground politicians?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:23 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Did you think the new age of digital democracy would be an improvement on the old politics, with serious debate about policy issues rather than childish name-calling? Prepare to be depressed.

All day yesterday, the political end of the web was alive with insults, boasts, and chest-thumping from Labour and Conservative supporters - and much of it was about a website called Cash Gordon.

Cash GordonYesterday morning, I was in Conservative Party headquarters for a radio interview with their very youthful communities organiser Craig Elder about the use of social media in campaigning. The Conservatives have thought long and hard about using Facebook in particular to mobilise their supporters and Craig, who seems very clued-up about web development, was proudly showing off their latest idea - which was Cash Gordon.

It's a site which uses Facebook Connect which encourages supporters to spread a message to their friends about Labour's union links - and gives them points for taking actions such as sending Twitter messages to Unite organiser Charlie Whelan.

I asked Craig how much the site had cost to build; he wouldn't say, but insisted it wasn't excessive - and whether it was worthwhile given the fact that only around 500 people appeared to have joined up. He explained that each of those people could well have 150 Facebook friends to whom they might have talked about the Conservative message, so the party was getting a lot of bang for its buck.

But by the time I got back to my office, Cash Gordon had fallen over. Someone had spotted a hole in the website's security. Any messages containing "#cashgordon" were being published, whatever else they contained. Some mischief-makers made sure that their messages also contained a small line of code which meant that visitors to the site would instantly be redirected somewhere else. And so, very soon, Cash Gordon was sending people off to all sorts of unsuitable and off-message places, from the Labour Party homepage to pornography sites.

For some hours, while the developers worked to fix the problem, visitors to Cash Gordon were redirected to the main Conservative site. Meanwhile, Labour and Conservative micro-bloggers traded insults, with one side arguing this was the greatest foul-up in the short history of "peer-to-peer" campaigning, the other that their strategy had been vindicated because #cashgordon was now a trending topic on Twitter and their opponents had simply given them free publicity.

So, all a bit of fun for the committed politicos, but just how fascinated will voters be by this kind of playground politics? Here's one Twitter message I saw as the clashes reached new levels of ferocity:

"Dear Tories (and Labour for that matter), we're sick of "The Blue Team versus the Red team". Can we have some real debate and ideas please?"

Democracy UkAs if to answer that plea, the world's biggest social network has unveiled its contribution to the forthcoming election campaign. Facebook, perhaps concerned by the way the politicians have flocked to Twitter, has launched a page called Democracy UK which will act as a focus for a lot of the disparate political activity on the site. So far, it looks pretty thin, but it will be interesting to see whether it develops into a useful forum for discussion of policies, or is taken over by the party pie-chuckers.

All the parties are putting a lot of effort into their social media strategies, convinced that these new-media tools can be a cheaper way of organising their troops and getting their messages out. But they may need to tread a bit more carefully when they venture into people's social lives - after all, most of us find it a bit wearing when "friends" arrive at our homes ranting about politics or trying to sell us something.


  • Comment number 1.

    Anyone who has ever watched PMQs will not be expecting anything other than childish name-calling.

    Childish name-calling is, in fact, the only thing that politicians of either of the main parties seem to be able to do with anything approaching a reasonable level of competence.

  • Comment number 2.

    #Disgusted of Mitcham. Oh let's be fair to them, they're great at embezzlement, deceit, ingnorance and making that "rah" noise in Commons whenever anyone says anything contentious.

  • Comment number 3.

    The thing about all this type of stuff is it only appeals to the politics fan-boys, all of whom made up their minds as to their allegiances years ago.

    As for “He explained that each of those people could well have 150 Facebook friends…” If they do they’ll all be politicos too, anyone else with any sense will run a mile at the sight of mono-obsessive anoraks bearing down on them.

    Fortunately (or unfortunately for all the strategists) all this passes the great majority of people by.

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent article Rory, keep them coming

  • Comment number 5.

    Any medium which offers a relatively free channel to reach a large number of people always has the same defect. It will get abused by those who seek only their own profit. They will then the first to cry foul when all the other "quick buck" spammers swarm to the honeypot audience of #cashgordon.

  • Comment number 6.

    State funding for political parties, anyone?

    Not in my name!

  • Comment number 7.

    @ #1, DisgustedOfMitcham2 wrote:

    "Childish name-calling is, in fact, the only thing that politicians of either of the main parties seem to be able to do with anything approaching a reasonable level of competence."

    Not even that!

    Any child will tell you that free-for-all name-calling is merely the first action; then, you run away so that the target of the abuse doeesn't know who said it!

  • Comment number 8.

    I really hope the Cons party don't get in. They have much more spin than Labour and we'd all have to start again with another change in Government, learning the ropes, etc. At least, that's what it would be like for David Cameron. Most of his party seem to be throwbacks from a bygone era - the same lot we chucked out last time, advising Gordon how to run the country the old fashioned way.

    David Cameron just doesn't impress me at all. He attacks Gordon Brown at every single opportunity, it's very childish. He's got the Sun tabloid on his side and they do the same, they also attack Gordon Brown at every opportunity. What both fail to understand is that this is Britain, we British often support who we consider to be the underdog because we don't like this sort of victimisation. The more Cameron digs at Brown, the more likely Cameron will be ignored in the election.

    Cameron's recent attacks that I can think of - "Sack the Manager" where he compares Labour to a football team. That's very direct and insulting. It really doesn't do his party any favours and yet he's too blind to see it.

    "It's my patriotic right to be prime minister" says Cameron. Excuse me, but it's up to the people whether you become prime minister or not, you work for us, it's called a democratic duty. You may think you're entitled to take control of our country because you're so full of yourself, but I'm afraid you need to ask us first. That's the way this country works.

    "Vote for change" says Cameron. This was a carbon copy of the American presidential campaign. How low can you get? Cameron thinks that what worked for Obama will work for him too. But what change are we voting for? We live in a democracy and we don't have a president, we have a prime minister. A prime minister can only do things by consent, how much change does he think he's going to have the right to do? A prime minister alone can't just do anything he likes, just because he has the top job.

    And how is it change exactly when a lot of the people working for Cameron are the same ones that have been in the Cons party for decades. That isn't a change of party, it's just a change of leader. That's like changing the logo of a chocolate bar and then claiming it's a new brand. Ridiculous. The only real change would come from voting for a party that never gets a chance to win, such as the Lib Dems.

    If we do have to choose between the usual two heavyweights, I really hope Labour stay in for another term. I really can't stand the thought of Cameron and his cronies in Number 10. If he did win, when the next election comes round after this one, Cameron will start saying it's his patriotic duty to be re-elected. He'll tell everyone that voting for him again means voting for change (again). And he'll tell everyone to "keep the manager". But of course by the time that happens, we'll all be sick of Cameron because that's the way it always works. Even the Sun will turn against him when it's in their interests to do so.

    What makes me laugh about the Suns support for Cameron is they'll have a very, very biased report on how Gordon Brown is failing the country and how David Cameron can save it, and how Gordon is the worst person on the planet who doesn't know anything and how Cameron is an angel sent from heaven who will solve all the worlds problems at the snap of his fingers. They'll say all that in the "news" story, then they'll have a section to the side called "My view". I always find that so amusing, because clearly the entire report from start to finish is "My view", it's the view of the editor, it's not fact. There's not one bit of news in the paper, it's all biased opinion from start to finish. You can never trust a word thats in it, and what hope is there for commercial journalism without trust?

    Look at the BBC by comparison. They state facts only in the news stury and then leave it up to the reader to decide what's true. That can be difficult at times, so they have "My view" columns too, but there's a huge difference between fact and opinion when you compare the two side by side. When you compare the Suns version of fact and opinion, they're always strikingly similar. What sort of news is that? (it's no surprise that the Sun takes every opportunity to have a go at the BBC too, in the interests of "news").

    It's just politics, it's one side versus the other, neither has an absolute right to win, all you can do is put your case forward and then hope that people believe in you. But to spend your time rubbishing the opposition, and getting the Sun to praise all of your good sides and spin, and fail to report on your bad sides and truth, that's very counter-productive and people are more likely to vote against you for being so damn arrogant.

    At least, that's what I would hope to happen, then we can show Cameron how we do things in this country.


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