Posted by & filed under Online, Politics.

It comes round so regularly you could set an incredibly slow clock by it – the question “will the next election be the Internet election?

It’s impossible to answer that question without first defining what an “Internet election” is. Traditionally to my mind there have been two possible definitions:

  1. An election where a stasticically significant number of seats, ten or more, change hands either as the direct result of online campaigns by political parties candidates, or because positive online campaigning was a critical factor.
  2. An election where any number of MPs, as low as a single MP, is undeniably ousted from their seat by a negative campaign either by political opponents or independent critics, mustered online.

But a third possibility is emerging.

My belief is that when we look back on the General Election of 2010, for all the effort poured in to them the defining story will not come from My Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats’ soon to be launched competitor, Act.

It could come from a signature pre-planned campaign. If, for example, the TaxPayer’s Alliance aren’t working right now on a postcode searchable system in which voters can see what their sitting MP has claimed on expenses, and what their opponents have said their approach to expenses will be, then they need to sack the person responsible for their digital effort and re-hire quickly.

More likely, the defining online moment of GE2010 will come from Twitter.  Watch this short video before you go any further:

The video shows Twitter’s trending topics for October 13 2009. It shows the clear emergence of the #trafigura hashtag as the dominant topic of conversation in just three hours – an explosion aided by (cough) people like me keeping the tag alive overnight from about 10pm on the 12th. They weren’t just any hours either, but the awkward hours at the start of the working day – 08:00 to 10:00 where people are still drifting in to work, and an organisation isn’t at its peak responsiveness.

Millions discussed Trafigura on Twitter. By the time Trafigura hired someone who understood social media, just three days later on October 16th, their staid YouTube response was only able to garner a few hundred views. Many simply weren’t interested in the story any more, and those who were interested weren’t inclined to help the company out by passing on the existence of the video. They’d burned millions of bridges with millions of people, simply by being slow to react.

Every party, and every candidate, has to decide now whether they’re going to understand and engage with social media, or fear it. It’s a nightmare for political parties to get their heads around – social media has no respect for constituency or regional boundaries, no understanding of the need for parties with complex structures to navigate their internal democratic processes before they pronounce, and in particular, no mercy for those who cannot respond somehow, in some way, immediately.

If the parties haven’t understood it already, they need to now. The General Election of 2010 is already the Internet election – the power of one foolish remark by a tired key figure, amplified by Twitter, could cause your national campaign to implode if you aren’t ready. There is no choice whether or not to engage online, the playing field has been swapped from under the feet of the political parties while their attention was focused on the Lobby.

Purely in terms of defending against the threat of social media, irrespective of embracing the opportunities, if parties haven’t already done the following, they need to move quickly:

  • Don’t think that reading Guido Fawkes’ blog is the same as monitoring the web – treat Guido just as you would a journalist from the mainstream media. In terms of influence his blog is as mainstream a media outlet as The Telegraph online. Engage him as you would any other hostile journalist. And Guido’s not alone – have a list of bloggers with a similar impact to the MSM.
  • Train all your press officers as active participants on Twitter. The Lobby and other key journalists are already there, and will be being fed stories through Twitter constantly.
  • Extend your media monitoring teams to set up Twitter searches for ‘@’ replies, so you can see not only what your key targets are saying, but what is being said in reply. Include:
    • Your candidates and their opponents
    • The journalists following your campaigns
    • Key national political media
  • Merge / co-locate your digital and media teams, they need to feed information to each other instantly.
  • Have a plan for how you’re going to engage on a national level. Where will you be? Who will speak? Look at the polling data – particularly the demographics. Are you better off on Facebook? Twitter? YouTube? Can you cover them all?
  • Be ready to create video at short notice. If you’re hit by a critical YouTube video, there’s little point responding on a webpage on your party site.
  • Train your local campaigners. Make sure they’re running a reduced version of your national social media monitoring. Ensure that they can quickly alert your national digital team to anything they may have missed. Particularly, but not exclusively, for sitting MPs look at the campaign and ask yourself this – “If I found myself on the receiving end of a Tim Ireland / Anne Milton campaign, would I know how to react?”

And finally, the national parties (and for that matter any large agency, charity, or company) need to examine their usual tactics for handling negative stories, and ask if they still stand up in the age of Wikileaks and Twitter. You can’t injunct them, you can’t cajole them, you can’t bully them, and you can’t deny their voice. You can only engage. Are you ready?