Can the Internet win the next election?

Bloggers think ‘No, but it can probably lose it’

Last week’s elections and the political fallout have placed in context, for me, the event I went to at the Frontline Club on 28 May about how the Internet might play a part in the next election.  The participants were:

  • Iain Dale, Conservative blogger at Iain Dale’s Diary
  • Alex Smith, recently appointed Editor of the LabourList.org
  • Adam Boulton, Political Editor, Sky News (Chair)
  • Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes)
  • Matthew Macgregor of Blue State Digital (the company that worked for the Obama campaign
(l-r) Iain Dale, Alex Smith, Adam Boulton, Paul Staines, Matthew Macgregor
(l-r) Iain Dale, Alex Smith, Adam Boulton, Paul Staines, Matthew Macgregor

I made contemporaneous notes and also some Audioboo content which is available here.  A bit of background to the event here:

Everyone in ‘Broadcast Mode’ needs to ‘get with the program’

iain-dale
Iain Dale - political blogger

Iain Dale  (pictured left) believes that the internet will impact individual MPs (mostly through revealing things they don’t want revealed I suspect) but that the overall ‘systemic’ effect of the internet will be small.

He agrees that the next General Election will be the first where mobile phones and social media will really begin to play a part and where bloggers will cause changes in the news cycle:

“We get more hits every day than all the 3 main parties put together”

He said referring to the traffic generated by his blog and by Guido Fawkes’.

The problem is the main parties are in ‘Broadcast Mode’ and that given British politics is driven by ‘controlling the message’ the level of interactivity of social media is a challenge.  As Matthew Macgregor said “The internet is a tactic not a strategy” and that it lowers the barriers to communication (especially inbound to the Party) but how real is the commitment to ‘openness and transparency’.  The reaction of the media to policy discussions driven by social media will, Matthew believes, be instructive; will the shutters come down once the media starts talking about ‘splits’.

“There’s nothing to click on other than ‘Unsubscribe'” – Matthew Macgregor

Alex Smith believes that “The Internet will play a crucial role in the next election” – he mentions viral video and the possibility of debate being shaped by the internet.  He argues that the internet has “already effectively removed one of the Prime Minister’s closest political aides” and that the next election will to some extent be driven by stories that will “break on the web”.  Alex believes that Paul and Iain have a huge impact on the media cycle and thinks that this will be an important factor.  All the panelists agreed that the Internet strategies of the main parties were poor at best.

Boulton’s shock hashtag confession

At one point when talking about social media and the internet Adam Boulton said he didn’t know what a hashtag was (and I don’t think he was joking!) and references to the internet seemed to feel like references to some kind of monolithic bloc.  Alex picked up the point that realtime interaction driven by things like Twitter might be important.  Adam seemed to think that a Sky news team would always be faster on the ground.

The next Boo starts with the voices of Alex Smith (interesting references to Alan Johnson) and then Iain Dale.  I round off with a few thoughts.

The next Boo has ‘reportage’ – skip it if you feel you have enough of a flavour from the text above.

Reflections and implications

The format worked well with a fairly formal panel session followed by various panelists joining tables and moving between courses.  The informal part of the event was really good – we had Iain Dale and Alex Smith and the comments and discussion were very engaging.

The event would have been improved by a more discursive (and less ‘Question Time’) approach by the chair.  Also, having a chair who seemed quite cheerful to admit that he didn’t ‘get’ the internet seems odd – but then presumably Adam ‘Hashtag’ Boulton was a draw for the ‘punters’ (especially the non-geeks)!  All in all though a minor criticism.

There were two main things I took away to think about:

  • The importance of internet aggregation in realtime and increasing symmetry of communication,
  • The potential for independent candidates to harness the power of the internet to disintermediate the major parties.

More thoughts in the next Audioboo:

Sometimes it needs stating . . .

There was a bit of noise on Twitter both during media140 and after it on the extent of ‘obvious stating’ going on at the event.  Much of this comment was of a critical nature – ‘they don’t get it'; referring to the somewhat Twitter-sceptical journalists in the room.  The bigger players there (Sky and the BBC) indulged in a bit of un-necessary and rather tedious sparring.  Both of them, I suppose, feeling secure in their knowledge that their respective ‘market’ power and ‘broadcast’ mode will leave them largely unchanged by the openess and pervasiveness of social media generally and Twitter in particular. Hmmm.

Following media140, I’ve been reading blogs and the press coverage – reportage mostly; who said what and with little commentary or analysis about what it all means.  Perhaps it’s too scary for the Potential Legacy Media (currently known as MSM) to think about?  And sometimes that means the obvious needs a bit of stating.

Wordle based on media140 liveblog

As part of the ‘post match’ coverage there was an interesting if largely self-referential segment on pods and blogs on R5Live with journalists and a thoughtful comment from Mark Jones of Reuters who also provided some excellent comment and analysis on his Reuters blog.

Realtime coverage

I used Audioboo and Scribblelive at the event.  I also generated the wordle above based on my liveblog.  You can find the liveblog here and ‘hat tips’ to contributors here.

Those of you who liveblog events will know the level of concentration it needs.  Using Scribblelive actually increases the level of complexity as you try to bring in other people’s tweets, try to avoid too much duplication (most sole tweeters at events do so in realtime and there’s often duplication in the aggregated stream).  Trying to join in, provide some realtime feedback and combine inputs is ‘not for the faint-hearted’ as the Scribblelive people say!

In the next sections, I provide some thoughts on media140 after reflecting on the issues, the coverage and my own liveblog and Audioboos made at the time; I name the presenters in the Audioboos and you can also refer to the Agenda.

The 140 Character story

This panel kept bouncing off the argument – they had a silly discussion about whether Twitter was journalism or not.  And we kind of forgot the ‘realtime news’ tagline of the entire event.  What was missing for me was:

  • What the aggregation of information carried across Twitter enables (the analogy from Bill Thompson of the Twitter  ‘seismograph’ is insightful);
  • The speed at which news can propagate through memes and hashtags and the level of self-organisation enabled by this form of cooperative production (Retweets, comments, links to blog posts, realtime and near realtime video streams and websites); and,
  • The need to filter true signals from the sheer noise and volume of the information available.

Sources, editorial control and workflow

The panel did discuss the risks of ‘opening up’ the news process and the potential impacts on the way news is made and perceived.  I wonder what happens to the ‘news cycle’ in a General Election when many of us have access to realtime video production on our mobile phones or can report events directly as they happen over Twitter?  We’ll find out soon!

The panel focused on the risks.   An example of the risks seems to have been happening while the event was on, but I’m not sure anyone realised it.

twitterspam Skynews.com used Coveritlive to add a Tweetstream to their site.  There seems to have been no filtering so there was lots of spam.  And seemingly little editorial control over the Tweets.  Just what risks Sky may have been running can be imagined; the links to ‘goldencasinoflash’ could have been links to anything.  Anything at all….

untibpc-spamtMy Tweets were being carried live by Skynews also – even though I was effectively doing competing realtime coverage using a rival platform to Sky.  I don’t know to what extent there was active editorial control of the Tweetstream – the amount of spam they let through might suggest very little?

Frontline Journalism

One of the few times in the event when the room went really quiet and people listened really hard was when Guy Degen, freelance journalist and a member of the Frontline Club, played some audio and video footage from Tblisi.  He was sent there on his own for Deutsche Welle; he had no gear and no time to get any, no crew and used a mobile phone to cover a riot. Frontline indeed.

Kevin Anderson was insightful on the impact of social media on reporting on a roadtrip style assignment in the USA.

Local and human

Local news = newspapers? #fail

Joanne Jacobs ably chaired the final panel session and brought the whole event back pretty much on time so kudos to her.  It was an interesting and stimulating panel – and you can pick up some of the flavour of the discussion from pp 6-8 of the liveblog.

Given what’s happening in local and regional news, the discussion after the short presentations seemed to spiral into being about newspapers.  But surely local news is going to be much more than papers – but I can see there’s a painful transition to go through for a lot of people.  Some of the more ‘gung ho’ social mediarati might like to think about that.

No-one mentioned the ‘backchannel’

The backchannel (what happens in the social media space during an event or presentation) didn’t get a mention.

Here’s an example from media140:

Use the backchannel!
Use the backchannel!

I first came across the backchannel in tech conferences in the USA about 5 years ago – using chat room software over local wireless networks and, in some instances allowing external participants ‘listening-in’ to audio streams to interact with the chat.  All these messages were projected on a screen behind the speaker so it was generally impossible both to present to the audience and watch the backchannel at the same time.  The backchannel often had more stimulating and interesting stuff on it than was happening on the panel.  And dangerous sometimes for both speaker and audience.  I remember taking my PowerBook onto the stage and using it in a panel session both to contribute to the backchannel and comment on what other panelists were saying.  Apparently, this was unusual at the time.  The audience reaction was interesting!

So it seems to me that the Potential Legacy Media faces the same risks as a pompous or tedious speaker in perpetual broadcast mode with an active backchannel.  Like a politician giving the answer to a question the interviewer didn’t ask, the risks of audience alienation are high.  And when the real backchannel turns against you, as it has for our MPs recently, life can get very unpleasant.

Being Human and Connecting

Jeff Pulver over a quite good Skype video link finished off on an optimistic note.  We can move from a position where the one-way broadcast mode can become much more interactive.  It has to be more than ‘promotion'; it must be much more about connection.  Above all, it’s about being human and taking that humanity with us into social media spaces and connecting.