Election 2010: the online battleground
Updated on 04 January 2010
As the phoney war begins, how will the internet and social media shape campaigning in the run-up to the general election? Channel 4 News takes a look at the online battleground.
The gloves may not yet be officially off, but the politicians are edging into their corners and reaching for their gumshields as the fight for votes swings into view.
The general election date remains unclear, despite hints from the prime minister, but most would agree the 2010 campaign will be the first to be fought in sizeable chunks on the internet.
John Major's upturned soapbox, double whammy poster campaigns and even Saatchi-slick party political broadcasts now seem antiquated in a world of blogging, tweeting, crowdsourcing and poking.
So just how crucial will it be for MPs to "connect" online with voters in the coming weeks and months? What can British politicians learn from Barack Obama's digital campaign for the presidency? And who is already ahead on the web?
It is clear the Tories dominate the political blogosphere. So where are Labour's counter-punchers?
Channel 4 News has been asking eminent bloggers, campaigners and politicians for their view of the internet battleground, its importance and the sway it could have over the ballot box.
She said: "I think new media could potentially play a very important role in the election, in a number of ways.
"Firstly, it will drive the news agenda and accelerate the pace at which announcements are disseminated, dissected, challenged and in some cases comprehensively rubbished, in hours or even minutes rather than in days.
"The parties will find it very hard to control this agenda in the way they've been accustomed to doing in past elections.
"We've already seen email making a real difference to the ease with which people can contact MPs, but for those MPs with an online presence their voters will also be able to search through their websites, read their blogs, contact them on Facebook and Twitter.
"Anything which makes politicians more approachable and, by extension, more accountable, is a good thing. Politicians who aren't willing to engage in this way will lose out."
She also warned: "New media is not without dangers... there is a tendency on Twitter for activists to talk/argue amongst themselves, which can put off other people who are politically interested but not involved.
"Too many MPs using Twitter are still in 'broadcast' mode, whereas they should treat is as a two-way conversation."
Former Liberal Democrat communications manager Olly Grender told Channel 4 News: "Blogs and Twitter will be dominant in this election, in part because they are read - and repeated - by the mainstream journalists.
"Twitter will become the replacement of news, particularly for the time-poor, but it is still over the heads of most of the electorate.
"[Obama's] is the model every party will try to emulate. But it has to have the charisma and hope and excitement of the Obama campaign to add magic dust and that is nothing to do with new media and everything to do with fundamental political ideals."
She also stressed that with social networking "authenticity is key", even if it means bloggers are not towing a party line.
"Twitter and blogs must be genuine, e.g. Sarah Brown is far more human and personal than the Downing Street twitter. If some public relations operative does corporate speak for them the politicians will soon be found out.
"What is compelling about the best known pro-Tory bloggers is that they break news and are rarely "on message" at least outside an election campaign. Therefore they are compelling reading - but not necessarily the preferred reading of someone in the Tory high command."
Conservative blogger Iain Dale is one of those heavyweights. He believes email is still at the heart of good campaigning despite all the talk about social networking.
He told Channel 4 News: "Email is the most important aspect of internet campaigning, and whichever party has the biggest database of email addresses is likely to be the most successful.
"I think web-generated stories will probably dominate the news agenda on four or five days of the campaign, but in a very negative way. They will concentrate on gaffes and mistakes made by politicians and candidates.
"However, I think candidates themselves will use blogs and Twitter to get in touch with younger voters in a way that they have never been able to before."
Unsurprisingly he believes the Tories are ahead of the pack when it comes to engaging with voters online, but the benchmark set by the Obama media team has yet to be equalled.
"The Conservatives have been ahead in most areas of internet campaigning, but the other two parties are catching up.
She said: "Obviously the web is going to play a bigger part in election 2010 than it did in 2005 but the internet won't determine the outcome. Most voters still get the message from the general media.
"Voter apathy is again the biggest hurdle and with last year's MPs' expenses crisis it could be an even bigger problem this time around."
She thinks Britain's political parties have a lot to learn from the US model: "Obama's campaign team were highly-calculated on Twitter and with MyBarackObama. It was less about messaging and more about engaging and I think UK politicians have some way to go before matching that.
"The Tories have invested more (online) at the moment. The Labour page for members is good, but it needs to open up to a wider audience."
Guido Fawkes is the pseudonym used by self-declared "libertarian" Paul Staines. He is widely regarded as the leading British political blogger.
He told Channel 4 News: "I think political blogs will to some extent be swamped by the wall-to-wall politics coverage that will be playing in the mainstream media.
"Twitter is a bit of a media fad, it is a tool not a means. Most of the political twitterers are really in a ghetto, preaching to the choir.
"The Tories have a bigger budget and they get it. Labour have been a bit heavy-handed and clunky, Lib Dems are doing it on the cheap and it shows. It remains to be seen. They all have the basic technology.
"There are boring things that Obama did right - the mailing list for instance is very important. The social media bells and whistles are less important."
Rupa Huq is a sociologist, Labourite and self-named "accidental blogger". She believes it is important to stress Obama's successful online campaign was more about good organisation than the use of gadgets.
She explained: "There are lots of lessons that can be learned from Obama's campaign.
"Not all of them are to do with technology. Howard Dean was the person hailed as an unparalleled e-campaigner and he spectactularly flopped in '04.
"As a community organiser I think Obama’s grassroots army was enviable – a 50-state strategy that saw electors queuing round the block for his "a better world is possible" appeal."
She agrees that election 2010 will be fought heavily on the web, but warns against overlooking the value of old-fashioned campaign methods.
"I'm an enthusiastic blogger but then I think of my parents who have both voted in every election since the 1960s who are now in their seventies and they don’t even know what a mouse is."
She added: "Yes, online campaigning will have a greater role than ever before but it’d be a mistake to get carried away with overstating its importance. It's the economy (stupid) and perceived competence at handling this which will be the decider.
"I can’t imagine post-election headlines in an 'It's the web wot won it' vein somehow."
He told Channel 4 News it will be the "first general election of the social network age" and believes news stories which break online will dominate the campaign trail.
"There is real potential for blogs, Twitter and other new media sites to make a tangible contribution to an exciting political discussion, and it's likely that an unguarded moment or two caught on mobile phones will derail the best intentions of the political parties to control the agenda."