Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Twitter etc and the election: Is it worth the risk?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Somebody will put their foot in it.

Opinion may be divided about how much influence YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media phenomenon will have on this year's general election.

Video sharing website YouTube
Sites like YouTube have become huge since the 2005 election

But there is one thing all the experts can agree on.

Some hapless candidate will say or do something which will make them an instant, if unwitting, internet star - bringing instant shame and embarrassment to their party.

"Candidates are going to have to be on their guard all the time," says Tim Montgomerie of Tory-supporting blog ConservativeHome.

Social media was in its infancy at the 2005 general election - now it is everywhere and the consequences for politicians are only just beginning to sink in.

'Too many tweets'

With so many camera and Twitter-enabled phones in circulation no political meeting can ever be considered private again, argues Mr Montgomerie.

"Everything you say could potentially be recorded. You are being watched all the time and you have to be careful what you say," says Tim Montgomerie.

I think Cameron would be good at it. It'll be a great medium for communicating in a warm, direct way
Tim Montgomerie, Conservative Home

Even when they are relaxing after a hard day's campaigning, election candidates can not be sure that the person fiddling with their phone at the next pub table is not Tweeting their every word.

But the benefits of social media for politicians on the campaign trail far outweigh the risk of making a gaffe, argues Tim Montgomerie.

Twitter, in particular, offers them a chance to get their message across to voters in a more relaxed, intimate way than was previously possible.

Tim Montgomerie has been urging Conservative leader David Cameron to overcome his wariness about the micro-blogging site, which allows users to post updates on their day in 140 characters or less.

"I think Cameron would be good at it. It'll be a great medium for communicating in a warm, direct way," he wrote in a recent blog.

'Great medium'

But his pleas seem destined to fall on deaf ears. Mr Cameron made his views on Twitter plain last year, when he told a startled radio presenter he believed "too many tweets make a twat".

If nothing else, the incident proved that you don't need to be on Twitter to put your foot in it.

But with the opinion polls narrowing the Conservatives cannot afford any slip-ups.

Whatever I write on Twitter now I have to just assume the Daily Mail will read it
Tom Harris, Labour MP

The party is encouraging candidates to use Twitter and other social media websites - but party managers have also been accused of attempting to vet their online utterances, after an e-mail to candidates was leaked to the press which said "electronic publications such as websites, blogs and Twitter have to be approved before they are posted".

The Conservatives say it would not be practical to vet everything that their 650 general election candidates say online and they were merely seeking to remind them to stick to party policy.

What worries Tim Montgomerie and other Tory supporters is that many more Labour MPs than Conservatives are active on Twitter.

Recent research by Tweetminster found that of 111 MPs tweeting, 65 were Labour, 23 were Liberal Democrats and 16 were Conservatives.

Gordon Brown does not have a Twitter account but his wife Sarah is a something of a Twitter phenomenon, with more than a million followers.


Of the big three party leaders, only the Lib Dem's Nick Clegg has used Twitter to hold debates with voters and announce policies. Mr Clegg also boasts of having the maximum number of friends on Facebook.

But does any of this matter to voters?

Labour MP Tom Harris, one of the most prolific and widely-read political bloggers and Tweeters, believes most of the electorate will not even notice social media and it will have little, if any, impact on voting intention.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown's early forays on YouTube were not judged a success

He believes the main impact of Twitter will be as a source of stories for the mainstream media - something he has bitter experience of, when comments he made about an "'army of teenage mothers living off the state" were picked up by the newspapers.

"Whatever I write on Twitter now I have to just assume the Daily Mail will read it," he says.

The other effect of social media on the general election campaign - and this is something most of the pundits seem to agree on - is that it will speed everything up.

"It will add to the general sense of chaos," says Tom Harris.

Instead of worrying about the main TV news bulletins, party managers will now have to keep across literally thousands of media sources.

But far from loosening their grip on the political agenda, Mr Harris believes the internet has given the parties more control.

"If the parties want to respond or attack, they can now do it instantly. A lot more of the power to move the agenda is back with the parties," says the Glasgow South MP.

Cameron spoof

And he is scathing about the ability of the big political blogs, a handful of which probably wield as much influence as newspapers in shaping the political agenda, to keep the spin doctors in check.

"There will be a huge push by all the like-minded bloggers, both left and right, to promote their own party's agenda. I think you are going to get quite a lot of discipline," he says.

Perhaps. But Mr Harris may be underestimating the ability of the internet to subvert party messages and take them off in unexpected directions.

One of the biggest hits on Twitter in recent weeks has been the myDavidCameron site, which allows people to come up with their own, spoof versions of the Tory leader's recent "airbrushed" election poster.

More than 70,000 have had a go. With money tight for Labour at this general election, this kind of "viral" effort could prove crucial to the party.

But the biggest impact of social media may be at a local level - and this is where much of the parties' efforts are being concentrated.


It is thought Conservative candidates are being encouraged to record their own YouTube videos saying what is important to them - ready for when voters type their constituency name into Google.

Former Liberal Democrat web chief Mark Pack believes the internet will spell the end of indentikit candidates, all repeating the same election message crafted for them by party HQ.

David Cameron
David Cameron made clear his views of Twitter's risk during a radio interview

"It will encourage individuality and creativity," he says.

He even argues that round-the-clock scrutiny by camera-phone wielding voters is a good thing for aspiring politicians: "In a less politically divided age, the personal attributes of a candidate are increasingly important."

But Mr Pack, who co-edits the Liberal Democrat Voice blog and is an associate director of PR firm Mandate, says social media may not truly come into its own until after the final vote has been cast.

With a possible hung Parliament and one or more of the parties potentially facing leadership contest, politicians are going to need a fast, cheap and convenient way to rally support and raise money.

As Barack Obama found during his US presidential campaign, when it comes to generating a "bandwagon effect", the internet is hard to beat.

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