New media, new politics?

The Daily Telegraph ran an interesting story yesterday, entitled, in typically wordy fashion, “This was meant to be the internet election. So what happened?” The article argues that social media have proved to be next to useless as campaigning tools, noting that none of the main parties have really embraced Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, and it has fallen to the old-fashioned medium of television to capture the public imagination by means of the leaders’ debates.

It’s true that, from the point of view of a party manager trying to run a tight campaign, the new media present as many hazards as opportunities, particularly in a parliamentary election where there are hundreds of candidates, with varying levels of political experience. If a party leaves its candidates free to blog and Tweet as they please, it’s guaranteed that there will be some well-publicised embarrassments, but if the central office tries to impose some editorial control it runs the risk of being accused of standing an army of brainwashed clones. It’s a bit easier in a presidential-style campaign, where attention can be focussed on one individual’s carefully-scripted output, and this seems to be the pattern that the main parties are following, hoping, no doubt, to emulate the success of @barackobama.

On the other hand, as many comments under the article point out, what’s (supposedly) been new and refreshing about this election is the way that the old parties have lost control of the debate, and ordinary people have seized control of the agenda. In this version of the story social media has been a vital weapon in the armoury of a newly-energised populace, and is set to change political discourse forever.

People have been saying this sort of thing for years; I remain sceptical. Social media may be good for the rapid dissemination of particular stories, but, by its nature, it needs a constant flow of new material, and doesn’t allow for reflection and consolidation of ideas. It can also create the illusion that one is participating in a political movement when in fact one is merely a spectator. Twitter and Facebook may have lowered the threshold of entry to political activity, but if that activity never goes beyond clicking or retweeting it’s unlikely to produce significant social change.

I guess the extent to which social media have influenced the course of this election campaign will be argued about long after the results are in, but my feeling is that while the electorate, or at least that proportion of it that is digitally connected, may feel that it has been more in control of the flow of information, real power will have remained in the hands of the financial-political elite.

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