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The 2010 UK general election was dubbed the ‘internet election’, and political party communications chiefs deployed a whole range of new weaponry in the bid to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of voters. Critically evaluate using reference to current and recent high profile campaigns, plus reference to wider academic research and analysis.
The 2010 UK general election had many historic firsts. It was the first time the leaders of the three main parties took part in televised debates, the first time a coalition government was successfully formed and the first time that the internet might truly have had an impact on a UK election.
But how accurate is the moniker “internet election”? Did the internet play as pivotal a role in the election as some predicted or believe?
In order to try and answer these questions it is important to look at the history of the internet and political campaigning by assessing its influence on other recent elections. I propose to evaluate the internet’s role in the US elections of both 2004 and 2008, as well as consider its influence during Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009. I will then consider what the internet’s role was in the 2010 UK general election and whether it can really be described as an “internet election”. I will also try and assess what role the internet might play in future political communication.
Foot and Schneider (2006, p194) believe: “...the emergence of the web and the expansion of web campaigning have fundamentally altered the ways in which campaigns are organised and the ways in which campaign organisations perceive themselves and their roles.”
Using the internet to assist in political campaigning, at least in the US, has “grown dramatically” every year since the first campaign websites appeared in 1994 (Foot & Schneider 2006, p7). But, it wasn’t until the 2000 US presidential elections that critics declared the arrival of the “first internet election” (Foot & Schneider 2006, p9).
But, it was the 2004 US presidential elections that perhaps demonstrated properly for the first time the potential impact of the internet on political communication, with Rainie et al. (2005) stating that the internet became an essential part of American politics in 2004.
According to their 2005 report during the 2004 election cycle: “fully 75 million Americans – 37% of the adult population and 61% of online Americans – used the internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in emails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or giving contributions to candidates” (Raine et al. 2005, pi).
And political commentator Michael Cornfield stated: “...campaigners learned a great deal about how to use the internet to attract and aggregate viewers, donors, message forwarders, volunteers, and voters during the 2003-4 [US] election cycle” (Negrine 2008, p178).
So what was so significant about the use of the internet during the 2004 campaign, apart from increased numbers of American citizens accessing information online?
Democratic precedential candidate Howard Dean’s use of the internet was seen by some to mark a significant leap forward in the strategic use of online political communication.
“With the help of his net-savvy campaign manager, Joe Trippi”, Dean revolutionised American political campaigning (BBC News 2004).
Dean and Trippi, at least initially, “used the internet to vault out of obscurity and into the lead over several more well-known opponents” (BBC News 2004).
They exploited the phenomenon of blogging, through the site meetup.com, to create a network that at its peak had 140,000 members. Through his strategic use of this online community Dean’s campaign raised more money than any other Democratic candidate that year. He also mobilised bloggers to organise volunteers to go door-to-door, write personal letters to likely voters, host meetings and distribute flyers (Wolf 2004).
Central to the campaign’s momentum was the ‘Dean for America’ blog and email lists which personalised relationships with, and devolved campaigning tools to, supporters (Gibson 2008).
Campaign director Joe Trippi wrote that the internet “was explicitly used to break down the ‘us and them’ mentality that dominated previous Presidential campaigns” (Gibson 2008) and it was considered that Dean’s “leverage of ‘mousepads’ as well as ‘shoe leather’” succeeded in putting him ahead (Gibson 2008).
Ultimately Dean’s campaign to gain his party’s nomination ran out of steam, but the way he had used an early form of social media “marked for many a ‘coming of age’ of the internet as a political medium” (Gibson 2008).
But, it was Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign that took the use of the internet in political communications to “new and dizzying heights” (Gibson 2008), with Wagner (2008) declaring that due to Obama’s campaign the internet was crowned “king of all political media”. In fact, the use of the internet during Obama’s campaign was also voted among the top 10 internet moments of the last decade by the New York-based International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences(Daily Telegraph 2009).
Entire academic works can be of course written about the online communications techniques employed during Obama’s campaign, so I will offer only a short summary of activities here.
Obama’s use of online communications sought to emulate Howard Dean’s personalised approach, but on a mass scale, with at least 13 million people signing up to his email distribution list (Thinking Aloud 2009). Those who received the emails were encouraged to forward them onto friends using a forwarding system that personalised the emails, creating a personal connection between supporters and the campaign.
He also harnessed the power of social media and had profiles on around 15 social networking sites (Thinking Aloud 2009), as well as creating, with the help of a Facebook co-founder, his own site where people could create profiles, network with other supporters, organise activities, access a database of people to canvass and upload and watch videos (Wagner 2008). Indeed, during the campaign, “YouTube users alone spent 14.5 million hours watching official Barack Obama campaign videos...that amount of network time for political commercials would have cost $46 million” (Wagner 2008) And this, of course, does not include the content supporters generated and uploaded themselves.
This use of social media allowed Obama’s supporters to become “amateur campaign managers” (Thinking Aloud 2009) and caused a ripple effect that got people not usually interested in politics to engage with the campaign. Indeed this, apart from the obvious fund-raising potential of the internet, was one of the key aims of the campaign (Thinking Aloud 2009).
Now he is president, Obama continues using social media techniques to communicate White House activities and policies. His Facebook page has 18,915,343 supporters (Facebook 2011) while his Twitter account boasts 7,234,184 followers (Twitter 2011), making it, according to tracking site Twitaholic, the fourth most popular Twitter account in a top ten full of pop singers and celebrities (Twitaholic 2011). Both profiles are updated regularly with photos, videos and information, as are his official website Organizing [sic] for America (2011) and the White House (2011) site.
I have looked briefly at how the internet has begun to be used by political communicators to influence voters and mobilise supporters. But, the internet is also beginning to impact political communications in other ways.
We have seen how the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama sought to use the internet to garner support, communicate specific campaign messages and “break down the ‘us and them’ mentality” (Gibson 2008) of politics. In both instances, the campaigns aimed to influence people to share their support, donate funds and vote.
But it must be noted that while political communicators are increasingly seeing the internet as an effective tool for disseminating their messages, it is also being used in a different way – as a tool of political dissent.
This poses significant challenges for mainstream party political communicators. McNair states: “although [political] elites can create and control their own media space (their websites, blogs and so on) these are of little use unless they are accessed... [while] the potential for interactivity exposes elites to interrogation and contradiction” (2008, p175).
And it was in this context that the internet, and social media in particular, was used during the disputed Iranian presidential elections of 2009. Those who used it had the main purpose of organising support and getting a specific message out to the world (Sreberny Khaibany 2010, pvii), that contradicted the messages coming from the country’s own politicians.
Protests against the disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejadoccurred in major cities in Iran and around the world in June of 2009 (Wikipedia 2011). And the internet became the “backbone” of the pro-opposition Green Movement, as“severe restrictionswere imposed on the movement’s offline activities” (Enayat 2010).
Carafano (2009) states: “the cyber activism surrounding the Iranian protests was unprecedented, driving the global debate while governments and the established media struggled to keep pace.”
Protestors exploited Iran’s already well-established, “vibrant” blogosphere (Enayat 2010) along with social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to get their messages out. “Citizen reporters” were able to share stories, videos and photos with people around the world in a matter of minutes and “the war on the streets spread to an online war” (Carafano 2009).
Denied traditional sources of public information – the Iranian government expelled journalists, tried to block access to the internet and satellite TV and controlled the country’s media – protestors “turned to social-networking tools that provided services ranging from conventional news reports to a means for organizing protests worldwide” (Carafano 2009).
Social networking site Twitter had perhaps the most impact during these protests, its use chosen among the top 10 internet moments of the last decade (Daily Telegraph 2009). Headlines such as Twitter Revolution and Revolution will be Twitterised spread around the global media (Sreberny and Khaibany 2010, p174).
Sreberny and Khaibany (2010) believe Twitter, while it did not play a major role in organising demonstrations, did become a channel through which “messages could be sent to international media organisations that had little access and first-hand information about what was happening in Iran” (2010, p175).
Grossman (2009) states that Twitter “emboldened the protesters”, reinforcing their conviction that their protests were being heard in other countries around the world. He believes it “engaged populations outside Iran in an emotional, immediate way that was never possible before."
So, having looked at the ways in which the internet has previously been used in political communications, what impact did it have on the 2010 UK general election?
Downey and Davidson (Negrine 2008, p185) state that “the internet played an insignificant role in the 2005 [UK] general election.”
However since then we have witnessed the Obama campaign’s effective use of the internet and an increase in access to the internet in the UK from around 35 million people in 2005 (Internet World Stats 2010) to more than 40 million people last year (Von Abrams 2008). There has also been the “rapid rise in social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook” (Gibson et al. 2010, p1).
These factors, perhaps, prompted headlines such as How the 2010 election will be won by blogs and tweets (Helm 2010) and The first Internet Election in the UK (Inside Public Relations 2010).
Gibson stated (Thinking Aloud 2009) that there was “enthusiasm” and “interest” in whether the Obama campaign techniques would work in the UK during the 2010 election.