Monday, 26 April 2010

UK politics and the battle between Old and Social Media

Firstly this content is about politics.  Though the purpose of the post is not to 'push' any specific political agenda but to examine the role social media has played in the sudden, and unexpected rise, of the Liberal Democrats and how that too has impacted the 'old' media.

For those of you reading this who are not in touch with the current affairs in the UK, currently there is a general election being held it appeared that the 13 year majority of the current Labour government would be seriously contested by the opposition Conservative party.  Then, on the 15th April, the UKs first live televised debate went out with the three main leaders.  The result was that the previously marginal Liberal Democrat party were declared the outright winners.  All hell broke loose.

The TV debates are an historic first for the UK but something else that is also a historic first is the use of social media.  Of course, over in the US, the effective use of social media gave it claim to Obama's victory.  I don't think that this was a fact ignored by the election teams in the UK as politicians ran to pick up their own Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles but the nature of on the ground campaigning hasn't altered quite so dramatically.

Traditionally, in the UK, the main stream press has held the single greatest influence over elections and this sudden swing is evidence that their grip is breaking.  There is no doubting that the televised debates have been the single biggest influencer in the dramatic shift in political ground over the last two weeks however there is a real war between social media and the mainstream press.  After all, the UK has taken fondly to social media, being only second behind the US and with London having the highest percentage of Twitter users than any other city.

Although it is easy for some in the press to dismiss social media users the intensity of UK usage compared to other countries is no doubt going to have an impact on the end result.

Real evidence of this was available even before the first leaders debate had finished.  Looking at what was trending on Twitter gave a solid prediction of the outcome.  Nick Clegg was far in front with Cameron and Brown just nipping in at the bottom of the top ten terms.  Ironically Clegg was kept off the top spot by the hash tag #iagreewithnick.  A few minutes after the debate had finished Nick Robinson delivered the catchphrase live on BBC.  For Twitter users he was only confirming what they'd known for the last ninety minutes.

It was in the week after the first leaders debate when the power of social networking was truly demonstrated.  After Cleggs surpirse win the right wing press went into overdrive to discredit the new upstart.  What resulted was a simultaneous barrage of front page smear campaigns across the four main right wing papers (Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, Sun).  Twitter users reacted instantly with disdainful satire by manufacturing a series of ridiculous claims and blaming them on Clegg.  Before lunch time the same day #nickcleggsfault was the highest trending hashtag.  And it stayed there, trumping even #leadersdebate, for several days.  Even if the press couldn't pick up on the subtleties of that then the fact that "murdoch lose britain" was trending a few positions  behind should have been a clear enough message.

Then the Murdochractic media made its second mistake when  Sky TVs host Adam Boulton questioned Clegg on one of those very front pages.  It was outside the rules and hundreds of tweets popped up within seconds protesting against it.  These soon translated into over 100 complaints to Ofcom and of course news coverage of the slight.  From that moment Twitter had a microscope over Sky's coverage of Clegg and was even accusing Sky of deliberately 'cutting' Cleggs shots so he couldn't 'look into the camera' whilst giving Cameron more opportunity to do so.  Of course this is pure conspiracy but it was a small enough seed of doubt that people believed deserved to be retweeted.

And this seed of doubt had serious consequences.  Once Sky announced that YouGov had David Cameron in first place Twitter reacted with disbelief.  Within seconds people were posting that they'd taken part in the YouGov poll and felt it was biased, they were even posting screenshots of the survey to prove it.  This lead to accusations of 'push-polling'.

And it didn't end there.  The day after the Daily Mail were claiming on their home page that their polls showed that Cameron came out on top.  But a Twitter user had observed that the Mail had withdrawn their original survey which had Clegg top and republished it.  The result was a Twitter call for poll-jacking to put the numbers 'right' (which they eventually did).

What is interesting about all the above is how UKs Right Wing press inadvertently waged war with social media users.  The press forced people into camps: with us or against us, and to against us was to be with Clegg.   And so social media users reacted in the same way they had against what they perceived as the mainstream bullying and manipulation of Simon Cowell by campaigning to deny him the Christmas number one by replacing it with Rage Against The Machine anthem "Fuck You I won't do what you tell me".  Except this time they are reacting against the Right Wing Press and Clegg is their Rage.  Evidence?  Well a facebook group called "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!" that has already collected over 150,000 members - which is more than any political party.

Why did they make such an error?  Well perhaps it's because the press like to dismiss social networking as something for 'young people' and 'young people' don't read newspapers and, so they thought, young people don't vote.  But, thanks to social networking, a kick-back against the 'old' media and a some dramatic TV coverage it looks like that all might change.

Of course the truth will out on May 6th when people turn out to vote.   The Right Wing press still hold considerable influence over the British public, let's not forget that social networkers are a specific, though not insignificant, demographic. But, though it's hard, look behind the politics and you'll see, just like the XFactor Christmas single, there is a clear theme from the 'internet generation' that they won't be dictated to by the traditional media and now, thanks to social media, they can quickly mobilize and push back.  Perhaps the press should take warning from the Rage campaign, because when they do push back, they push back on mass, and they push back hard.

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I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.