Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

Research shows party leaders' 'social media reputation'

By Victoria King
Political reporter, BBC News

Even before official campaigning begins, one thing seems clear - this election is going to be fought in cyberspace as well as on the doorsteps.

Facebook
Many MPs and candidates are using sites like Facebook

Social media websites, like Twitter and Facebook, are now seen as crucial battlegrounds, as well as potential forums for political gaffes. The influence of bloggers too, free as they are to support or attack the various parties, also seems to be growing by the day.

Now one company, Yomego, says it can put some numbers on the effect of all this - with what it calls "social media reputation scores" (SMRs) for the parties and their leaders.

These give a rating for someone's online popularity by looking at both the "noise" surrounding them - just how much are they being talked about online - and "sentiment" - whether the talk is positive or negative. The higher your sentiment score, the nicer the things people are saying about you.

Out of the 100, Gordon Brown's popularity score is 68.20, David Cameron's is 58.98 and Nick Clegg's is the highest at 68.49.

Within that, Mr Brown's noise component is up at 87, but his sentiment is just 47 and slipping. A lot of people seem to be talking about him, but not very favourably.

Mr Cameron's sentiment score is better, about 58, but people seem to be talking about him much less - with noise down to 48.

Of the three, Mr Clegg appears to be talked about in the most positive terms, with a sentiment rating of 62.

'Air-brushed' poster

Steve Richards, managing director of Yomego, says: "The trend has been that Nick Clegg has been steadily rising, without doing anything particularly spectacular.

"David Cameron's personal score has gone down recently. He took a big knock around the whole airbrushed poster campaign. There were a lot of spoofs, particularly from influential bloggers, and that really seemed to hurt him.

"Finally, Gordon Brown's score has risen recently, but largely due to noise, not because of any growth in positive sentiment."

LEADERS' SOCIAL MEDIA SCORES
Gordon Brown - 68.20 (out of 100)
David Cameron - 58.98
Nick Clegg - 68.49
Source: Yomego

Looking at the parties as a whole, however, the picture is quite different. Labour's score is 63.56, the Tories' is 73.12 and the Lib Dems' is 62.04.

The Tories are miles ahead in terms of noise, with a figure in the nineties, but are also doing better than the government in terms of sentiment.

The Lib Dems have the best sentiment but not much overall noise - according to Yomego, the main talking point is whether Vince Cable could become chancellor in a coalition government.

PARTIES' SOCIAL MEDIA SCORES
Labour - 63.56 (out of 100)
Conservatives - 73.12
Lib Dems - 62.04

"The Tories have made more effort so far than the other parties to use social media and that shows. Things like their iphone app have gone down well," Mr Richards says.

Comments, good or bad, that are being made by so-called "influencers" - in the political context that tends to be certain bloggers, columnists or correspondents - have a bigger weighting than an average person.

"If someone with a million followers on Twitter is saying something negative then that could potentially have a big influence," he adds.

Younger voters

But does any of this really matter? Should the party leaders actually take it seriously ahead of the election?

"Well, Obama certainly did," says Mr Richards. "A huge part of his campaign was directed towards social media and influencing younger voters who might well take a steer from their peers rather than traditional media outlets.

"And it's very immediate. Just last week Labour took a hit over the lobbying stuff and David Cameron saw his sentiment ratings improve because of his wife's pregnancy."

Yomego also works with corporate clients - recently Mr Richards says he has seen the social media reputation of big brands like Toyota and Eurostar "fall off a cliff" thanks to a product recall and tunnel breakdowns respectively.

It's a sort of early warning system for negative sentiment
Steve Richards, Yomego

"If you look at Eurostar, they were getting a huge amount of negative chatter, but in the crucial first 48 hours of that there was nothing from them. There's a lesson there for politicians.

"If there's a particular detractor out there who is running a story and is generating a lot of traffic then it would be worth their while reacting to that."

This sort of cyber-space reaction could provide almost instant feedback to the leaders' performances during the televised head-to-head debates scheduled to take place during the campaign.

"They'll be able to see exactly how people are reacting. It's a sort of early warning system for negative sentiment."

Tories 'on message'

Other groups are using social media in other ways to test the political waters.

Mr Cameron might have made it clear last year that he is no fan of Twitter but nevertheless, a group of computer science students at Cambridge University has developed a programme that analyses the tweets of individual politicians.

It compares them with a 250,000-word database of material from their party's manifestos, speeches, and so on and can work out how on or off message any one person is.

All that is displayed on a website, tweetguv.co.uk, and one of its founder's, Oliver Chick, said: "The Conservatives have consistently come out a lot higher in terms of allegiance, with Labour quite a way behind and the Lib Dems even further."

He says about one politician a day is signing up to Twitter and the allegiance between them and the party line does seem to be affected by wider goings on.

"The Tories had a bit of dip earlier this month when their polls ratings started to drop, but they seem to be back on message now, particularly around the Budget."



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