Election TV debates or social media to have biggest impact?

March 4, 2010

There are at least two new factors in the coming election — the first-ever televised prime ministerial debates and the first full-on deployment of social media during a British election (Facebook was a year old, YouTube had just started and Twitter didn’t even exist back in 2005).

In a City University panel discussion on the ‘new media election’ Picture 9on Tuesday, host Evan Davies of BBC’s Today programme framed the debate in terms of which would be most influential:  The old, controlled media in the form of the three 90 minute TV debates to be broadcast by Sky, ITN and the BBC? Or the new, uncontrolled variety in the form of anyone with access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube et al?

The agreed guidelines on the TV debates were published shortly before the event. Amongst other things, they forbid heckling, and applause is only permitted at the start and end. The contrast with the ‘anything goes’ spirit of social media couldn’t be sharper.

So is it possible to predict which will be the most influential?

Matthew McGregor of Blue State Digital,  the company that ran Obama’s IT, believes that the way social media is used in “activating the activists” will be the untold story of this election. He made the case for email (the original social media?) being considered as the most important part of campaigning —  1 in 5 Obama voters were on an email distribution list that helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars. UK parties should take note ad invest 90 per cent of their election funding on email, he suggested.

McGregor also thought that “the way in which the TV debates are reported will be shaped online” given that viewers will be able to log their responses using social media far faster than any opinion poll can be undertaken. This linkage between social media and mainstream journalists was, he thought, illustrated neatly by the way in which Obama’s White House spokesman has finally got onto Twitter after accepting that journalists weren’t reading his media releases.

DJ Collins of Google suggested that the camera-phone — seemingly purpose-built to capture politicians’ gaffes — would prove the social media star of this election. He reminded the audience of how informal footage of allegedly racist comments by Senator George Allen had ended his bid for the Presidency back in 2006.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson was generally sceptical about social media and thought audiences of perhaps 10 million for the TV debates would clearly be more influential.  But he conceded that the prevalence of camera-phones brought the promise of many more moments like 2001’s John Prescott punch He also thought that the most memorable TV debate content would probably be associated with YouTube, either as highlights or in satirical edits.

Twitter’s role in mobilising people with real expertise to fact-checking the National Bullying Helpline story was also an impressive display of the way in which social media is speeding up the news cycle, said Robinson. An in what I thought was the most surprising remark  of the evening, Robinson balanced his views on social media he described  Sarah Brown, the wife of the Prime Minister who has a Twitter following of over a million, as “one of the most influential people in politics”.

I wasn’t quite sure how firmly his tongue was in his cheek, but Professor Ivor Gaber favoured Photoshop (I guess as a proxy for any image management software) as the most significant tool, pointing out how the imaginative changes made to online versions of Conservative posters had demoralised those campaigns and would force the party to think again about whether it was worth the expense. And he warned about Twitter as ‘the joker in the pack’ — something that could just explode without warning as in the case of Trafigura.

Rishi Saha, a former Conservative candidate and now Head of New Media for the party, sounded a note of caution over the amount of real impact the fake poster sites were having. Acknowledging that they were great fun, he reminded the audience that they had viewers in the thousands compare to the millions looking at the original billboard posters.

He also made the point that comparisons with the US election miss the fact that Obama was like a start-up company — he had no structure at all and needed to build everything from scratch, whereas the Conservatives had a 200-year-old organisation with an established network of donors. And, perhaps most tellingly, while Obama had exploited new media brilliantly to raise funds, he spent the overwhelming majority on old media TV ads.

Another former parliamentary candidate, Rupa Huq (Labour, sister of ex-Blue Peter presenter Konnie) wondered out loud whether social media had the sophistication to deal with a complex party political situation and suggested it might only be effective for single issues. Asked how many of the people she canvassed on the doorstep had read her blog,  she cheerfully conceded that the answer was probably none.

So what to make of all this? Evan Davies took a show of hands at the end of the discussion. Despite the numerical supremacy of new media panelists, the focus on how symbiotic new and old media have become, and the constant references to Obama’s social media mastery, three quarters of the audience thought the TV debates would be the more important.

I’m not so sure. These debates look set to be very tightly controlled and, as a film director in the audience suggested, you need a very good script to keep an audience interested in a 90 minute feature, let alone do it three times in rapid succession.

See also:

TV not social media will be the election winner

Tweet and see

It will be leaders’ TV debates wot wins

Party leaders’ debates will be the ‘new’ media of election 2010

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