Tweeting truth to power - the internet election
Updated on 03 March 2010
As social website Mumsnet celebrates its tenth birthday Benjamin Cohen examines how politicians are reaching out to the public through the internet.
The trend for politicians to take part in live chats over Mumsnet or interacting with the public using social networking services like Facebook or Twitter, is termed within the industry as "disintermediation" - cutting out the middle man, i.e. journalists like me.
They do this in part because they are able to set the agenda, particularly on party-controlled services like WebCameron but increasingly on Twitter.
The co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone (http://www.twitter.com/biz) really welcomes this trend, telling me: "We're finding that through Twitter, politicians are getting more and more connected with people they're supposed to be representing anyway, which is a really good thing."
Sarah Brown, the wife of the prime minister, has a policy of rarely giving interviews, where she could lose control of the agenda. So she turned to Twitter before it became hugely successful, and quickly built up an enormous following.
More than 1.1 million people read her every tweet (more than any other political figure) and she ranks among the top five Twitter users in Britain.
I am one of the followers of @SarahBrown10 and because she follows me back, I am able to send her direct messages.
She can chose to ignore them or reply to the questions or comments that she is most interested in. She can also think about the contents of the tweets incredibly carefully.
Last year she held a "Downing Tweet" Christmas party. The great and the good of Twitter were there, and me. I asked her why it was that people follow her on Twitter. Was it to read about her campaigns like million mums, the maternal health campaign she runs, or was it because she's the prime minister's wife?
She said: "You would have to ask my followers, but I imagine the answer is a bit of both. What is interesting is the many hats that people wear in their twittering, their own professional life, their personal thoughts, their causes and their passions. Twitter, in only 140 characters each time, has the space and capacity to accommodate it all. "
The multi-faceted nature of Sarah Brown's tweets are endearing, her frankness and openness are intriguing, and the personal touch has drawn millions in.
She has for the most part shied away from politics. She has portrayed herself as the wife of the prime minister and nothing else. She has not really rallied behind Labour party campaigns nor used the service to defend her husband.
When I spoke to her off-Twitter recently, she played down her political significance. She certainly does not consider herself to be the party's secret election weapon. But she was quite frank: she tweets about her day, and during the election campaign she will at times be accompanying her husband as he tours the country.
So there is bound to be an impact. Simply by saying what they are doing, she will be effectively amplifying the traditional media coverage of a Brown visit.
This is a weapon - not a secret one, though - that the other political parties cannot really match.
On the whole, politicians from the other parties tend not to have huge numbers of followers. In part, on the Tory side this will be due to David Cameron's criticisms of the use of Twitter. In probably the most memorable thing that he said in the course of 2009, he told Absolute Radio "Too many twits might make a twat" when explaining why he is not on Twitter.
Some Conservatives are on Twitter though. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has almost 68,000 followers - but then, he has a very big media personality, is popular with the public and prone to gaffs both online and offline.
The Conservative party's lead politician for the social media and online elements of the upcoming general election campaign is Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, but he only joined Twitter a few weeks ago and has made just 35 Tweets. He has just 1,300 followers.
He told me, though, that social media will be a huge battleground during the election and pointed to the party's new iPhone app and Obama-style myconservatives website as evidence that the party is really keen to get onto the new media band wagon.
Mr Hunt revealed that David Cameron has considered joining Twitter but decided that he did not have time to devote to it, deciding that a Twitter feed that was part written by a spin doctor just would not work. He did, though, believe that for himself, at least, Twitter allows him to be more authentic.
Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, backs this up. Last night he told me: "It is me, and probably sometimes it makes the evil handlers quite worried! But I think that's what you have to do.
"It is genuine dialogue. Important to think before you send, that's obvious, but not to think too hard before you send because if you do, you end up sounding like an automaton - and that's what puts people off politics, frankly."
Although if Mr Milliband's handlers had been in control of his account, he might not have fallen victim to a virus that told his followers he was having better sex thanks to a sex aid!
Lynne Featherstone the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is leading the Liberal Democrats' online campaign. She has been blogging for seven years since she was a member of the London Assembly. She believes that blogging, Twittering and Facebooking allow her to disintermediate effectively.
"I'm trying to cut you out!" she told me. "That direct communication cuts out the middleman without any interpretation going on from those in the media who might not have the same spin as you'd like to deal direct. With blogging and Twitter, the message gets out in a way we haven't seen before either through broadcast or print media or even leafleting which is slower. This is very snap-snap-snap. You can rebut and argue direct with your audience."
I don't really think Lynne's objectives will occur fully, but the power relationship has changed. The fact is that while we in the media may not be analysing and interpreting what the politician is saying, millions of people on Twitter, Facebook and blogs will. They may well be greater experts in particular issues than me, and therefore provide a tougher line of questioning that the traditional media.
The fact is that all of these mediums are two-way. It's not just snap-snap, get your argument out. Every blog has a comments section, and dissent on Twitter and Facebook can grow in a matter of minutes.
Politicians might want an easy ride but they are not going to get it. Labour clearly has an advantage here with Sarah Brown. It will be interesting if the other leaders' wives will decide to join the Twitterati too.