What is an internet election
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Will 2010 really be an internet election?
Will the coming general election be the first where the parties will harness the power of the internet, as many commentators have predicted?
Some of the articles on this subject have focused on the way politicians use the internet, some on the backroom campaign technology.
Others have considered how the internet is driving the media agenda and some on how voters use the web.
But to answer this question, there are two bigger issues which first need to be asked.
1) What is an internet election?
To give some focus to this question, it might be useful to think of some appropriate benchmarks.
– How much funding should be raised online in an internet election? Five per cent, ten, fifty?
– How many voters would be contacted electronically, by email or social media?
– What would be the number of ‘voter contacts’ logged electronically by party staff and volunteers?
– How many clicks are generated by campaign-related Google Adwords and the like?
- How much traffic is there to party websites and how much participation in online events such as Q&As?
– How many voters subsequently report casting their ballot on the basis of information received/discovered via the internet?
– What proportion of party budgets is spent on online campaigning and infrastructure?
To this, we could have added the proportion of votes cast electronically if the UK had not all but abandoned experimentation with ways of actually making it easier for people to vote.
There are also the benchmarks which are harder to quantify, such as the impact of social media on party morale.
And then there are the factors which are virtually impossible to measure, like the way in which stories or memes which begin online then migrate into the traditional media and pick up a wider audience.
2) If this is an internet election, for whom will it be so?
It is worth first considering how many people are influenced by anything at all.
The Hansard Society’s 2010 Audit of Political Engagement provides some useful evidence on this point.
Some 24 per cent of British adults are classed as disengaged/mistrustful, having a 'luke warm' commitment to voting.
This group is "mainly young (more than half are aged under 35), and rather more working class than the adult public as a whole, though 44 per cent are ABC1s", says the report. "They are rarely readers of the broadsheet press, and more likely than average to read the Sun, Daily Star or Metro."
A younger audience might have been thought of as just the people to most consume information of any kind via the internet, but they may be disproportionately uninterested.
A further nine per cent of British adults, again a disproportionately young group, are classed as alienated/hostile.
The report says: "This group have a very low level of interest in or knowledge about politics, low satisfaction with the system, low belief in its efficacy and almost total distrust of politicians. They are often actively hostile towards the system."
So we can ask if this will be an internet election, but for around a third of the population it is unlikely to be any kind of election at all.
A further eight per cent are bored/apathetic and are "most likely of all groups to consider politics boring".
Perhaps internet humour and virals will be a hook to draw them into the election, or perhaps the increased coverage of election campaigning will make them even more bored of politics.
In roughly the middle of the road are the politically contented (six per cent of adults), the detached cynics (17 per cent) and the interested bystanders (14 per cent).
These groups are somewhat less apathetic, may know a little about their local MP and might discuss politics but are "less interested in seeking to influence political outcomes directly or in voicing their opinions beyond their immediate family and friends".
Could 2010 be an internet election for these groups of people?
There is a hint in that last quote about family and friends that the way to make internet campaigning work for them is not to communicate to them top-down from party or PPC, but rather to do so sideways, through those who they know, trust and already discuss the issues with.
Those kind of horizontal links are what social media excels at, and might be the most profitable area for developing campaigning techniques.
The Tweetminster report which highlighted the work of Labour's grassroots supporters online might turn out to have particular significance.
Finally, the Hansard Society report identifies the politically committed (10 per cent of adults) who are "hardcore activists" and the active campaigners (14 per cent) who are "interested in and knowledgeable about politics, but they are less passionate about and less involved in party politics".
Will these groups experience an internet election? If any group is, these are the most likely candidates.
But while they account for 24 per cent of the adult population, the report says that just two per cent of Britons have actually followed a political group or politician on Twitter and only four per cent have done so on Facebook.
And to emphasise quite what a minority interest it is to discuss politics online, just nine per cent have "expressed their political opinions online".
The Hansard Society report said: "A sample of 'digital leaders' showed that social media is important and highly valued amongst this elite group of political/digital experts. However, social media concepts in a political context have not yet crossed over into the mainstream where they are still seen primarily as useful tools for extending and enhancing existing personal relationships and for following celebrities, rather than engaging in the political process."
So what are the answers to the questions posed in this article?
Will it be an internet election? In some specific ways, such as the number of people contacted electronically (most likely by email), the answer will be yes.
But in a lot of other important ways, it seems unlikely.
And are there people for whom this will be an internet election?
Undoubtedly, and more so than in 2005, but they remain a small minority even of those who are interested in politics.
There were hopes from some people that 2001 and 2005 would both be 'internet elections'.
Neither were, and it seems unlikely that 2010 will be perceived as such either come May 7.
In particular, if the outcome delivers a narrow Conservative majority and/or a disproportionately large swing to the Conservatives in marginal constituencies, it is far more likely to be seen as proof of the efficacy of targeting key constituencies over the long term with feet on the ground, and not of online campaigning.
But one factor which perhaps could give the internet greater prominence is the role of the 'digital leaders' identified by the Hansard Society.
This no doubt includes most of the political media, so online coverage from the established media could perhaps ripple out to the wider public.
It would be somewhat ironic, however, if it was the mainstream media which made for an internet election.