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Digital election day one

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:19 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010

So finally they're off, the date's been announced, and we can all get down to business. I'm talking of course about the UK's first digital election. Interestingly, the first day showed that many outside the Westminster village were more focused than the MPs were on what was still happening inside Parliament. But here's what caught my eye on the digital campaign trail.

Twitter, once everyone had settled down and agreed that #ge2010 was the right hashtag, was a hive of election activity. At first it was quite dull, with a lot of rather obvious cheerleading by MPs or party spinners. Then it came into its own as the place to watch for gaffes.

When David Cameron made his election speech about the "great ignored", Twitterers immediately spotted that the words "gay and straight" which had been in the press release about the speech had not actually been spoken. The Tories were quick to stress that the speech was being repeated through the day with those words included.

Photo of Labour flashmob at St PancrasLater the blogger Guido Fawkes did some Twitter detective work to show that the joyful crowd greeting the prime minister at St Pancras station was actually made up of party supporters - one of them tweeted a picture describing it as a "Young Labour flash mob."

But away from the action on the social networks, the parties were concentrating on some rather less flashy new media techniques. It was e-mail which proved one of Barack Obama's most potent campaign weapons, and the UK parties are deploying it here.

The Conservatives told me in the morning they had what they believed was the biggest e-mail database in this election, enabling them to send their messages direct to nearly half a million people. They were quick off the mark yesterday sending out an e-mail with an embedded video of David Cameron addressing the Conservative troops. Labour says its e-mails are more targeted, typically reaching 20,000 people at a time.

Both parties have been keen to stress that all of those people had given permission to the party to contact them and could unsubscribe from the e-mails at any time. But I received messages from several people who claimed they'd received unsolicited political e-mails - the parties will have to be wary that they don't break the rules set out by the information commissioner a few weeks back.

And Google continues to be a battleground. The Conservatives have bought up 1,500 search terms over recent days, among them, "find my constituency", "polling station" and "mortgage rates". Voters searching for these terms will find adverts for the Tories among the sponsored links. But the Tories have competition - I searched for "general election" the other day and found an advert for UKIP. Labour tell me they are buying search terms too but I've struggled to find the evidence.

For all of the election talk on the social networks, another political topic got far more attention. The Commons debate on the Digital Economy Bill was sparsely attended but featured some passionate speeches which were heard by what may well have been a record online audience - at least to judge by the torrent of tweets about the proceedings.

The controversial bill, with its measures aimed at battling online piracy, got a second reading and looks like it will go through in the wash-up process. But the online storm whipped up by its opponents has not been completely in vain. I got the impression that the debate was a lot more thorough and carefully argued than it would have been before the advent of the social media.

Labour's Fiona Mactaggart and the Conservative John Redwood - a perhaps unlikely duo - united to explain just why parts of the bill were so misguided. The SNP's Pete Wishart, once a member of the Scottish band Runrig and apparently the first MP to have been on Top of the Pops, spoke with passion about the need to protect artists from those who would steal their music.

All of this drew a running commentary on Twitter, with a real sense that many people outside were connecting with the Parliamentary process for the first time - even if only to express anger that their views were not winning the day. Now if only the politicians on the campaign trail can inspire the same levels of digital engagement...


  • Comment number 1.

    I have to admit, I do find it a slightly uplifting yet depressing thought that so many of the people that I know, who have no real interest in politics have started turning into uninformed militants because of this digital bill often contradicting their own arguements.

    The bill shouldn't be able to go through as it will penalise and lose a lot of money for the creative industries, yet it also attacks our rights to have something that we create belong to us. And us alone.

    Rent-A-Mobs are nothing new though, although to be honest I'm slightly surprised to see one out in force this early in the campaign. Although not at all surprised at who it was that rented it.

  • Comment number 2.

    When Pete Wishart was talking about "the need to protect artists from those who would steal their music" was he talking about fileshares or the record companies?

    If you really want to get a feel of the distaste that the 20,000 people who emailed their MPs feel search for #debill on twitter.

    Oh and have a read some of what musician Steve Lawson has to say on the bill too -

  • Comment number 3.

    I think this Graphics of who turned up for the debate shows the feelings of Twitter towards the #debill very well indeed.

  • Comment number 4.

    The tweeps following the Digital Economy debate were certainly engaged, with the discussion online continuing after the debate. They have even gathered a reasonable number of signatories to an open letter on the topic:

  • Comment number 5.

    I'd love to know why only 40 people turned up. What were the other 606 people doing which was deemed more important?

  • Comment number 6.

    Tweets, blogs just raise the general noise level. They do not increase illumination or understanding, indeed as the nuggets of fact and truth are drowned in rubbish and noise it is proper to see digital communications as a barrier to good governance, in that they can be ignored by the establishment as indeed the establishment has ignored all views contrary or even slightly questioning of the status-quo.

    Writing is a way of letting off steam and diverts from action - it is the modern (and still legal!) opiate. It is used by the ruling class to dissipate unrest and divert the general population from taking any effective action.

  • Comment number 7.

    #6 - I'm not a member of the ruling class and blog because it's my democratic right. Caledonian Comment

  • Comment number 8.

    It was fantastic to be part of the #debill discussion last evening via Twitter and I agree that it was Fiona Mactaggart and John Redwood that made the best use of their time in the chamber.

    I think it was a great let down to the 5,000 Twitterers and many others who wrote some 20,000 emails about the #debill, that other MP's could not be bothered to represent 'us' (as seen at the link) during this important debate.

    It's no wonder that the average person thinks that MP's are out of touch with the electorate, they seem to hold 'us' in contempt for some reason. Roll on the election to get some new blood in the House.

  • Comment number 9.

    Wow, it's great to see that so many people can be bothered to be involved when they can do something from their sofa. Shame this many people can't be bothered getting up to protest in real life, we might actually see some real changes in the world.

    Oh well I can but dream.

  • Comment number 10.

    Shame this many people can't be bothered getting up to protest in real life, we might actually see some real changes in the world.

    Under this government some of the biggest street protests ever were over the issues of the hunting ban, and the Iraq war. In both cases the government completely ignored the protests. Then made protesting within a mile of parliament a crime.

    What's your basis for asserting that 'real' protests would be effective?

  • Comment number 11.

    _Ewan_ - good point, protesting outside the house of the government should be a RIGHT and something that they can't take away. Perhaps if we had stood up to them then it wouldn't be so bad.

    And yeah, I see your point, a few thousand people can't make a difference - there are some 40 MILLION adults (over 18s) in this country, now THAT would be a protest!

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Rory
    Just to say that the "Great Ignored" speech ignored all the disabled voters. If Cameron is to make a distinction about Black/White, Gay/Straight, Young/Old, Men/Women then disabled people should be encompassed in that speech. Typical tory speech trying to get the vote without believing in us the people. Us disabled voters obviously mean nothing to politicians.
    After years of calling an election he seemingly does not have any kind of policies set up. It all very well that he and his party members are talking about "wastage" however the tories do not seem to have answered as to how they propose to do it. He is coming across as shady and untrustworthy along with Osbourne, if he can get it so wrong in the way hw would have dealt with the recession then what else can he get wrong. He is the weak link in the Tory Chain.
    I also wonder if the Tories will now have a referendum (if they become the governing party) on the Exit Clause in the Lisbon Treaty considering they banged on about a referendum with regards to the Const Treaty which became null and void and replaced with the Lisbon Treaty giving the option of any European Member State to opt out of Europe. Would the Tories take that opt out clause and steer us towards isolation. I think that the Euro sceptics among the tories would not be so chatty if that kind of question was posed to them, I believe that they would flounder as they normally do.
    I can see the Tories cutting back on public services that are so vital to communties becoming the Tsars of the drug world and leaving people hung out to dry as they did all those years ago. The Tories cannot be trusted as Cameron and the rest of them are no more than career politicians who only care about power and not people. After all it was said in a documentary about him that he needed to get a job!! Says it all really.

  • Comment number 13.

    So Rory, will the rest of the BBC's coverage of the election be as much of an advertisement for the services of Twitter (a private company) as this post is?

  • Comment number 14.

    #7. Caledonian Comment wrote:

    "#6 - I'm not a member of the ruling class and blog because it's my democratic right. Caledonian Comment"

    Your comments are noted and taken into full consideration by the padding of the sound proof cell in which you are confined!!!! There is I am afraid no mechanism that can break into the awareness of the ruling class - especially new technology (Remember: Tony Blair could not use a computer and insisted that the NHS computerisation should be done in two years - even when he was told that this was impossible, but he persisted - power is arrogance and ignorance.)

  • Comment number 15.

    It is amazing how much these mps dont know about technology. Simply stating that you can protect your wi-fi with a "password". This bill has had no scrutiny and will only drive people underground.

  • Comment number 16.

    They wanted this to be a digital election, and on our side it has been.
    Politicians were contacted by phone and email, various online petitions were set up, and I imagine that more people watch parliament live than ever before.
    And it didn't matter. Thousands of people spoke to their MPs, and their MPs ignored them, just because the Whips told them to.
    This is not a democratic process, and the MPs do not represent the people's views.
    I'm hoping that all of the "reform" we've been promised, might include a destroying of the whips, and a rule that anyone wishing to vote on an issue has to listen to a minimum of 50% of the attached debate.

  • Comment number 17.

    This is being reported in the mainstream media as though it's all about illegal file sharing - but I think the stakes are much, much bigger. We now have a bill whereby:

    1. The government can order a website to be blocked for hosting copyright infringing material. Might this be used to block a site such as Wikileaks? Whose rights are being protected here?

    2. Websites may be blocked if they don't take "reasonable steps" to stop their users uploading copyright infringing material. It's not completely clear to me what is meant by "reasonable steps" here, but clearly this is intended to impose additional responsibilities on services such as YouTube. YouTube may be in a position to comply with this today (I don't know) but innovation grows from small startup companies, with limited resources. Would there be a YouTube today if the DEB had been in place in 2005? How will this affect the innovative startup companies of tomorrow?

  • Comment number 18.

    The framework for the 3 strikes measures that are in the debill originated from EU Telecoms Package approved in 2009, not something the BBC commented upon a great deal. While many ammendments were fought for at that time, more effort and scrutiny were needed then as well. The code is being pushed to Ofcom to consult upon, and Ofcom will take its direction from Brussels, where the 'right' to internet access is being debated. I hope at least that 'technical measures' can exclude being cut off and be limited to a slowing of the offending data stream, not dis-similar to what most ISP implement during the busy period. I think it is more productive to lobby Brussels that it is the UK Parliament. The changes to the EU Telecoms polcy were driven by lobbying Swedish, Dutch, French, Lib dems and oddly enough UKIP MEPs. Tory and Labour MEPs were totally unresponsive on this matter.

    While the debill was going on, the BIS conclusion on spectrum modernisation (auctions) have been issued. Do not expect to find any meaningful reference to a USC, or convergence of fixed and mobile.

    No UNiversal Broadband, but plenty of cheap Cider.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi Rory,
    I suppose you'll be too busy joined at the hip with twitter (it's a web service, get over it) during the election period to notice or even care that Fedora and Ubuntu have new offerings for 'technology correspondents' to review.

  • Comment number 20.

    Perhaps you should post a follow-up and mention the Communications Director celebrating the bill passing

    You might also want to cover how the people who are supposed to represent us were bought by big business.

  • Comment number 21.

    I would like to believe that most MPs simply don't understand the Digital Economy Bill, but after the expenses scandals, and the recent expose of MP-taxis-for-hire, I have to assume that the timing of the bill, and the way that it has been pushed through is a symptom of MP's, government and/or parties' contempt for the views of the electorate. Together with many others, I'm quite angry about this; potentially it has a direct impact on my company and livelihood, and I don't think that sufficient thought or care has gone into the legislation.

    Despite the fact that my local MP has done a good job, and I would normally support him, he cannot expect my vote. I hope I'm not alone.

  • Comment number 22.

    I cannot now bring myself to vote for the Labour or Conservative party as they have betrayed the electorate on the digital bill. I urge everyone to vote for an alternative party and punish them at the polls.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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