BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory
« Previous | Main | Next »

The digital election: Prepare to be spammed?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

So have we decided yet - is it going to be a digital election? A couple of days into my new, temporary role covering the digital side of politics, I am of course convinced that new media tools will play a vital role in the campaign.

Why? Because everybody is telling me so, from Joe Rospars who ran the Obama digital campaign, to a host of PR firms which have been sending me details of their clients' plans to scrape data off social networking sites and predict which way the political debate is heading. You can hear a quick interview with Joe Rospars here - and see the short film I made for the Daily Politics programme below.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But here's a question - will the voters be impressed when they find politicians coming at them brandishing their new digital methods? At one of the innumerable debates about this issue, the Evening Standard's political blogger Paul Waugh, Labour's Tom Watson and Jeremy Hunt of the Conservatives all had some very sensible and measured things to say about how significant new media tools would be.

They all agreed they would play a role, but thought good old-fashioned television would be more important, with the prime ministerial debates a particular focus. But I was struck by how taken they were with one particular tool for communicating with voters - e-mail. One of the speakers made the point that 2005 had been the direct mail election, with the parties learning how to send tailored messages through the post.

This time, those messages will arrive via e-mail too - and there was much praise for the Conservative MP Grant Shapps, who has apparently managed to build a huge e-mail database. I checked with his office and apparently they now have the e-mail addresses of more than 10,000 constituents.

Then I went home - and spotted this message on Twitter:

"Just received the first direct mail spam from a political party. Warning spammers - I will not vote for anyone who sends me some"

So the politicians are finding new ways of talking to voters - but if all the tweets, Facebook groups and electronic missives are just regarded as spam, will much of that digital effort be wasted?


Grant Shapps has been in touch to stress that his email database is set up on an opt-in or opt-out basis. As he points out, spamming constituents would not only be counter-productive, it could also potentially be illegal.


  • Comment number 1.

    It seems to me that the main discussion that could swing the election (well, based on the BBC Tech section) is the Tories promising good internet to all, so i would say it makes sense to email a bit of info. I for one won't discredit a party if they email me. Infact i would rather that that filling a land-fill site with flyers through my door! But don't over do it.

  • Comment number 2.

    It will only be as and when it suits them. I run a local site for gloucestershire, and I sent an invite to every party, every mp and every candidate inviting them to our community boards.

    It cam as no surprise that they were not interested, but what really got my goat was that only the lib dems even bothered to reply to the email.

    They only want publicity that they can control. Discussion is out of the question

  • Comment number 3.

    Well, I will certainly immediately rule out voting for any candidate who spams me.

    But here is an important question for you, Rory. If Mr Shapps really has email addresses of 10,000 of his constituents, how many of those have given consent to be on his database? And if that's less than 100% of them (which I'm sure it must be), isn't he in breach of the Data Protection Act?

    It looks like he probably won't be the only MP or political party to ignore the DPA. What will be done to enforce it? I find it deeply worrying if we are going to have politicians resorting to breaking the law as part of the election campaigning.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have a Similar opinion to the other people who have posted, while electronic communication is a valuable part of our lives all spam e-mail and messages sent to me will be ignored with the same strength and vigor as junk mail pushed through my door.

    I am never going to vote Tory and it doesn't matter how much stuff you send me and how many billboards you put up, that is not going to change. Spamming me will just result in your address being added to my ignore list.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm aware that my e-mail address is propably on every mailing list the Partys can buy, but atleast I can mark it as junk - and it saves paper.

    Being a keen Twitter user It's interesting to follow (and you do have to follow them on social sites, they can't just spam you) party activists from both sides who are unrestricted in what they tweet - away from the eye of the regulators.
    These can be party political messages that haven't always gone through the spin doctors - and the debates can be quite close to the bone. I'm a Conservative and I follow @BevaniteEllie just to see what the other side is upto.

  • Comment number 6.

    "Just received the first direct mail spam from a political party. Warning spammers - I will not vote for anyone who sends me some"

    Damned if they do try and talk to voters, and damned if they don't.
    I guess that's the way politics works.

  • Comment number 7.

    I completely agree with the Twitter poster. The more spam I get from a party the less likely I am to vote for them, or buy their product. If from what I hear of a party on the internet or radio or tv etc I like the sound of, I will look into your policys in my own time when I feel comfortable. I do not like feeling pressured into looking at something.

    I understand why they need to spam everyone, but it just doesn't instill any confidence in me.

  • Comment number 8.

    I define "spam" as email received from someone who does not have my explicit permission to email me. I am very careful about the permissions I allow when providing my email to companies or websites. So if I receive "spam" from a political party, I will have to wonder who provided them with my email address. If it's not clear in the email, I will have to assume they poached my email address from somewhere. They would immediately go down in my estimation if they'd done this!

  • Comment number 9.

    If I receive any unsolicited emails from ANY of the political parties, I will mark them as junk but send a brief reply of complaint back if the email address isn't one of those unmanned ones.

    I would advise anyone else who gets unsolicited emails from political parties to do the same.

    Perhaps the parties involved will then get the message that people don't want their spin/fear inducing propaganda clogging up their inbox...

  • Comment number 10.

    I feel much the same way as most commenters so far. I would definitely object to spam (email I haven't requested) arriving in my main inbox.

    I've been trying to work out what it is about email which makes me -- among others -- protective of it. Email may be regarded as more "personal" than having an envelope arrive on the doormat, perhaps? Email arrives on your desk, in your phone, and demands to be read (if you get a choice); a letter delivered by post doesn't have quite the same effect. Possibly.

    Anyway, I don't use my main email account to sign up for anything, and receive very little spam addressed to it. The email address I do allow out into the wild can be spammed as much as anyone wants: I don't look at it much and it has a good spam filter on it anyway.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think informed debate over the internet - such as discussion on blogs such as this - will benefit us all.

    Not, though, if the comments are dominated by 3000 word screeds of venom or rudeness directed at those who are original or considerate in their posts.

    I hope that the moderators will censure serial offenders (not censor!).

  • Comment number 12.

    Most unsolicited email goes straight to my junk folder. The small amount that survives to reach my inbox is almost always deleted without being read - except for me to look for evidence of an 'unsubscribe' option.

    I don't tend to hold it against a company if they send me one unsolicited marketing email, but if they don't offer an unsubscribe option, or if that option doesn't work, at that point I'm liable to deliberately avoid using their services in future.

    I'm intelligent enough to know where to look for information as and when I need it. All the political parties can leave my inbox alone, thanks very much.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think the decision about whether to take a political message as spam or not will be decided by the look and feel of the mail. And that depends on the person or group sending it, i.e. the party's promotion team.
    A really clever and modern email would easily catch my eye over a simple text based "Vote Labour" message, which I would ignore as quite frankly it looks boring.
    I'm 21 years old and think that unless the party sending the mail has someone within two or three years of my age they will struggle to send effective mail. Mainly because the posters will not know what someone my age automatically classes as "Spam". This is particularly true in mediums like Facebook and Twitter, perhaps less so in email.

  • Comment number 14.

    Any political party then sends me spam will immediately lose any chance of me voting for them.
    I am quite capable of reading their published propaganda, doing my own research, and making my own decision, without their interference.
    It will probably mean I can find no candidate whom I agree with, again.

  • Comment number 15.

    Digital methodology? Significant new tools? If you’re talking about twittering or social networks, I wouldn’t want to be social networked or twittered into a political office by people who have nothing to do but
    - social network with good buddies they’ve never even met or
    - twitter for causes about which they no nothing.
    These aren't digital tools so much as digital toys - one small step (maybe) above digital games.
    Good old-fashioned television is good; prime ministerial debates are good.
    But if I receive a bulk email from a politician I'd take it as a sign of his/her desperation; I might stop, think twice, and revert my vote to someone who seems a little more confident. Tailored messages through the post impress me about as much as bulk emails.
    I consider tweets, social networks and electronic missives as nuisance junk, as in please get that garbage out of my face.
    Lastly, the first President of the United States who used digital PR so extensively in his election has impressed me about as much as endless static.

  • Comment number 16.

    I won't be voting anyway, I'm bored with choosing either Conservative or Labour. If I did vote, I'd vote Labour. Why choose a prime minister with no experience when we already have one with experience?

    I don't believe Cameron's "vote for change" rhetoric. He's just trying to copy Obama, but he doesn't have Obamas charisma (nowhere near!) He says it's his patriotic duty to get into power - excuse me, Mr Cameron, it's up to the public whether you get into power or not, it's called democratic duty. Patriotism has nothing to do with it, it just makes you sound pompous. Absolutely nobody has a duty to get into Number 10, the key to the front door belongs to the public, not the prime minister.

    Besides, anyone who thinks that we'll see masses of changes if the Conservatives get in is in for a surprise. Political parties, even Prikme Ministers, can only do things by consent (otherwise it would be a dictatorship), and we're all part of the EU now. That's why Cameron never talks about immigration, there's absolutely nothing he (or any party) can do about it.

    Both the Conservaties and Labour are promising fast 100mb broadband speeds but sadly not starting until 2017, and we'll have another election before then.

    Reading the press (not including the BBC) doesn't inspire me to vote since the tabloids either love a candidate for prime minister and worthship the ground he works on (I say he, since they're all men), or else they hate him and take every opportunity to stick knives into him. So I don't see how any of us can possibly take any notice of one single tabloid when they all have ulterior motives. The only exception is the BBC, who go to great lengths to ensure that all political stories are fair and all main parties have their say.

    But really, if the Conservates win, it'll only be a matter of time before we're all moaning about them. Labour will get a new candidate for prime minister and he'll spend all his time trying to convince us that Labour is the party for change and we'll all believe it and turn against the tories. Then it'll be back to Labour again, then Conservative, then Labour, etc, etc. And on and on it goes. If politics was a business, both parties would be investigated by the Competition Commission!

    There really isn't much point in having an election at all. We may as well just have one party in power with regulators watching over them and the BBC watching over the regulators. In effect, we have that already, it's just that the party in power and the regulating party switch sides every few years to give the illusion that voters have a choice.

    On May 6th, do a Montgomery Brewster and vote for "None of the above!"

  • Comment number 17.

    Perhaps Rory could say exactly what the spam recipients rights are if/when an unsolicited e-mail arrives from one of the political companies. I've never ever subscribed to a political website, never gave any of my addresses to a politco, so can I report them to someone if I do get spammed?

    If someone makes the effort to chap on the door, they go up in my estimation - that takes effort. Spamming takes a few clicks and is lazy in the extreme.

    Want my vote? Work for it.

  • Comment number 18.

    In electioneering, politicians should treat themselves as products and make themselves interesting that people would want to find out more about them on the Internet or on their own websites.

    In an age of information overload, people put value on information that they receive, and the information they demand or seek by themselves will be far more valuable to them than unsolicited information.

    Political message spamming is in the category of unsolicited information, consequently, most people will simply 'bin' and not bother to read them. It is a waste of time and effort, if you ask me.

    Another method would be for local politicians to maintain list of email addresses of voters in their constituencies and update the voters on what the politicians are doing for the communities or inform them of new legislature and policies and how they would affect them. Soon, voters will come to expect or seek this type of information and start to value them. Here, there is a continuity of communication and not something that only happens during an election period.

  • Comment number 19.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 20.

    What is the legal footing for political parties sending unsolicited mail, texts & Tweets?
    Surely it cant be legal? Who do I complain too? what (if anything) will be done to those who DO spam?

  • Comment number 21.

    #17, Tengsted:

    "I've never ever subscribed to a political website, never gave any of my addresses to a politco, so can I report them to someone if I do get spammed?"

    20, andie99uk:

    "What is the legal footing for political parties sending unsolicited mail, texts & Tweets?
    Surely it cant be legal? Who do I complain too? what (if anything) will be done to those who DO spam?"

    One very practical thing you can do is report any spam emails to the sender's ISP. Most responsible ISPs take a dim view of their users sending spam emails, and will probably send whichever party has spammed you a warning not to do it again. You can either look at the internet headers and figure out who the ISP is yourself if you have the technical knowledge to do so (note: you will need to look at IP addresses, and can't necessarily rely on the email address of the sender), or you can report it via SpamCop, which makes the whole process fairly painless.

    A further advantage of reporting via SpamCop is that if enough people do it, they will be added to SpamCop's blacklist. Most spam filters use the SpamCop blacklist as part of their filtering, so that will mean that any future emails will be rejected by most spam filtering systems.

    As for the question of breaking the law, IANAL, but as I understand it they would be in breach of the Data Protection Act if they are sending you emails having obtained your email address without your consent for it to be used for that purpose. You could report them to the Information Commissioner, who at least in theory is responsible for enforcing the Data Protection Act.

    As I understand it, the Information Commissioner receives about 387,000 such complaints every day, and has a team of 2 part-time secretaries and a pet gerbil with which to investigate and take enforcement action, so good luck with that if you do make a complaint.

    No doubt the political parties are all very well aware of the total lack of enforcement of the DPA, so they are probably not too worried about breaking the law. Probably the best thing to do is to blog widely about it if they send unsolicited emails and point out their hypocrisy in not bothering to comply with the laws that they themselves have made.

  • Comment number 22.

    Ah, just read the update:

    "Grant Shapps has been in touch to stress that his email database is set up on an opt-in or opt-out basis."

    Er, which? That's a pretty important distinction.

    If it is set up on an opt-in basis, that could be argued to be legitimate. I would argue that it's not legitimate unless it's set up on a double opt-in basis (ie you have to sign up to receive emails in the first place, and then the list owner sends you an email asking you either to reply to the email or click on a link to confirm that you really did sign up, and you are removed from the list if you don't take that action), but even a single opt-in basis is almost certainly legal, if not necessarily good form.

    However, if it's set up on an opt-out basis, that is indisputably spam. An opt-out basis means that email addresses are harvested from some disreputable source, and you are then added to the spam list, but with the option of clicking on a link to opt out from further spam.

    I don't know whether that's illegal: probably not, as anti-spam legislation is extremely weak, and in any case, not enforced. But it is certainly spam and a gross breach of internet etiquette. It may also be in breach of the Data Protection Act, even if it doesn't breach the anti-spam legislation.

  • Comment number 23.

    Rory, just another thought about Grant Shapps and his 10,000 address email list.

    Have you asked him where he got all those 10,000 addresses from? If he received all 10,000 of them from his own website via a feature where constituents could sign up specifically to receive emails from him, then he is probably doing everything within both the letter and the spirit of the law (especially if he uses a double opt-in system).

    However, if he bought any of them from a third party list, perhaps you could ask him what evidence he has that the recipients gave consent to be emailed for political purposes?

    It's almost impossible to be sure of such evidence in those circumstances.

  • Comment number 24.

    I think it's stupid to rule out voting for someone who spams you. But if you reply to tell them to stop it, and they still send you the stuff - that's different.

    Personally I want the whole internet to work on the basis that I don't get anything sent to me - by any method - unless I have asked for it.

    So I'll treaty political spam in the same way as commercial spam - if I didn't ask for it, I'll ignore it.

  • Comment number 25.

    "I won't be voting anyway, I'm bored with choosing either Conservative or Labour"

    As they say on the BBC: "other parties are available"

  • Comment number 26.

    #24, John:

    "I think it's stupid to rule out voting for someone who spams you."

    I disagree. I think it's a matter of your personal opinion on how much of a problem spam is and how much you believe that politicians have a duty to abide by the laws that they make.

    If you are relaxed about such things, then it's a perfectly reasonable point of view just to delete the email and vote the way you would have voted anyway.

    If you feel strongly that politicians should abide by the law, then it's also perfectly reasonable to not vote for a party if they have shown that they are comfortable about breaking the law by sending spam emails in breach of the DPA.

    Neither point of view is stupid, IMHO. They're just different points of view.

  • Comment number 27.

    10,000 on an email list is believable for a sitting MP with a purely opt-in list. My MP (not Grant Shapps) certainly maintains a list based on people who have been in contact over the years, and I'd expect a lot of people to be in contact with sitting MPs about constituency issues. I got on the list when I was in touch about some point; as far as I could tell it is a properly managed opt-in list and not all the people on the list would be supporters of the current MP.

  • Comment number 28.

    "I'd expect a lot of people to be in contact with sitting MPs about constituency issues"

    True, but just because you get in touch with your MP about a constituency issue doesn't mean you have given your consent to receive election addresses by email. If you get in touch about a constituency issue and then find yourself on an election address email list, that would probably be in breach of the DPA. You could try to argue "presumed consent" to be on that list, but I think you'd be on very shaky ground.

    In any case, I find it hard to believe that anything like 10,000 people would get in touch with their MP by email. There are about 65,000 registered voters in Grant Shapps's constituency. Do you really think that 15% of them contacted him by email? I couldn't find any figures for how many people contact their MP in general, but I do note from the statistics at Write To Them that Mr Shapps received only 107 messages via that website in the whole of 2008. I would be surprised if he received such a higher number directly via email. Remember that many people also use old-fashioned letters to write to their MP.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.