Page last updated at 04:36 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 05:36 UK

Social media and the leadership debates

By Rory Cellan-Jones
BBC Digital election correspondent

Labour-supporting blogger Ellie Gellard
Labour-supporting twitterers include 20-year-old Ellie Gellard

One week in, and with the prime ministerial debates poised to begin, television has become the centrepiece of the election campaign.

But the debates will also be a focus for an unprecedented level of online activity.

All the parties are competing to make sure they get one simple message out online: "Our man won."

The micro-blogging site Twitter will be one arena where this battle will be fought.

During the hour-long chancellors' debate last month there were more than 11,000 tweets sent during an hour of argument. The number during this week's first 90-minute party leaders' debate is expected to be many times higher.

Virtual cheerleaders

But plenty of the tweets will not come from impartial observers, but from party "spinmeisters", eager to fix an impression in the minds of watching journalists and commentators.

Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles
Eric Pickles is one of the Tories' highest-profile Twitter users

For Labour look out for @campbellclaret - Tony Blair's former press spokesman Alastair Campbell - and @bevaniteellie, the young blogger Ellie Gellard. She helped launch Labour's manifesto on Monday, and is renowned for her high-intensity tweeting on Labour's behalf.

The Conservatives will have their chairman Eric Pickles , along with a host of cyber-savvy party workers and friendly bloggers. And the Liberal Democrats say they have already chosen a hashtag, #GoNick , to rally their virtual cheerleaders for Nick Clegg.

The parties are also planning real-world events to help focus all of this online activity.

The LabourList blog is planning a party at a Soho bar, after being joined by Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman for phone canvassing and street campaigning.

The Conservatives, who organised parties last month to watch David Cameron's interview with ITV's Trevor McDonald, are going to repeat the exercise on a much more organised basis.

They are asking activists to register their parties, so that they can join a conference call with chairman Eric Pickles beforehand, and they're advising them to invite people via a Facebook event page.

The Liberal Democrats are also using Facebook to get their supporters together to watch the debates.

Their "Debate Nights" page on the social networking site suggests: "Why not set up your own 'Debate Nights' party for people to get together and watch the debates; whether this be a party at home, in your local town hall or pub, or online."

Instant commentary

Facebook itself is trying to whip up interest in the debates and the election in general via its Democracy UK page.

Facebook's Democracy UK page
Facebook has a dedicated page on the general election

But it's also promoting its own digital version of the leaders' debates which it is running in conjunction with YouTube. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have all agreed to answer questions submitted by users.

But it does appear likely that on the night of each debate, Twitter will be the place to go for instant commentary.

Alberto Nardelli of Tweetminster, which tracks political activity on the micro-blogging site, says the volume of tweeting will be very high, although it may not beat the record set in 2009 when BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time.

Mr Nardelli does not expect twitterers to focus much on policy issues.

"A lot of it will be about what the leaders look like, their tone of voice and so on, and less on the substance of what they say," he said.

"But that's how the election campaign as a whole is."

All of this activity on social networks, on blogs and on the mainstream media will be analysed by practitioners of a new discipline called sentiment analysis.

They believe that by feeding vast amounts of data into computers they can analyse the emotions of those people watching and commenting on an event, and say something useful about public opinion.

The technology is already employed to help financial traders make decisions about the impact of sentiment on the markets.

The three television debates will be a useful testing ground for the claims of this new science.



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