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A 'new media election'?

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How much of the forthcoming political battle will be played out in cyberspace?

By Steve Hewlett
Presenter of Radio 4's Media Show

Its only just started and we've already heard plenty about the role of so-called "new media" in this election campaign. All the parties and many of the candidates have switched on to Facebook, Twitter and email.

Indeed out of the blue I've already had one from David Cameron. "Dear Stephen..." it says and at the bottom I'm invited to "connect" with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to share DC's message with friends and family and, last but not least to donate. All very new media but if I'm not already a committed Conservative am I really likely to do any of those things?

And there's the rub. What I received as a result of being on some email list somewhere in cyberspace was essentially a 'digital' leaflet - the same one everyone else received. There were lots of new-looking things about it - an embedded video message from the man himself for example - but it was in reality a classic piece of 'one to many' political campaigning.

Barack Obama after his landslide election victory, 4 Nov 2008
Barak Obama - the first new media president?

Nothing wrong with that but it barely scratches the surface of the truly transformative potential of new media. And on this front we really are some way behind America.

"Twitter and Facebook alone do not make a strategy," or so says Thomas Gensemer. You probably haven't heard of him but he should know. Gensemer is managing partner of a new media company called Blue State Digital and played a pivotal role in last year's big election story - Barack Obama.

I interviewed Gensemer at the end of last year for Radio 4's Media Show. We had already covered aspects of the impact of new media on the presidential campaign and seen for example the role bloggers had played in Sarah Palin's selection as Republican running mate.

Building support

I had expected Gensemer to tell us about more of the same and to run through how using the internet had helped Obama get his message across sections of the population known to be hard to each through traditional means. In fact what he told me was much, much more interesting than that.

Rather than using the internet (email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the rest) to push the message, they used it to organise the campaign. MyBO (My Barack Obama) was set up as a site supporters could use to communicate with each other.

Email communications from the centre were targeted and personalised using smart technology and editorial oversight to track supporter's interests and interactions with each other. Even emails from Obama himself were tailored to what Gensemer described as "hundreds of different tracks and segments".

Labour Party poster
Political posters from both main parties have been satirised online

Tools were created to help people meet, organise and engage in public debate at the local level. There were even iPhone applications which sent out telephone numbers of people supporters might want to call, talk to and connect with.

As Gensemer told us, it was all built around "notions of membership and loyalty… enabling affinity on the ground, giving people real things to do in their neighbourhoods."

And to cut a long story short this aspect of the Obama campaign - building a huge base of support beyond the confines of the party faithful - is widely recognised to have been key to creating the broad-based movement that overcame the huge influence of the Clintons within the Democratic Party and the conservative press and media beyond, ultimately bringing Obama victory.

If this sounds different to traditional political campaigning that's because it is - and in some quite fundamental ways. New media is inherently social, interactive and participative and people are getting used to that, so using it simply as another platform to distribute and promote the message, whilst not exactly pointless, hardly plays to its core strengths.

'Bandit country'?

And, if those strengths are to be tapped effectively, as the Obama campaign demonstrates, some quite fundamental changes in thinking and approach are required.

Campaigning is effectively devolved with the centre having much less direct control of what goes on or even the specifics of what messages get put across.

Traditional communication - from one to many - plainly retains an important role but dialogue and conversation are at least as important and possibly more so - especially if anything resembling genuine public buy-in to significant political objectives is to be achieved. In other words if you want to get the most out of new media you really need to start doing what might be called "new politics".

Conservative election poster
Old media still plays a large part in election campaigning

So are we there yet? Well you can certainly see "new politics" going on at the level of single issue and other non-party campaigns but there is little evidence thus far that many politicians or their parties have really got it. It's hard to imagine Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson letting go of their message under any circumstances.

And for all the language and the appearance of engagement with new media, cyberspace doesn't just appear to offer rather more by way of threat than opportunity to the big players in our current election campaign, it could almost be described as "bandit country" for traditional political parties.

Just look at the way election posters are lampooned within hours of being launched. The ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras and speed of the internet means the slightest gaff is spun round the world in a flash - utterly beyond the control of party managers and spin doctors.

The tenor of British politics through its Thatcher and Blair phases has been about developing ever more ruthless and centralised control of message and media.

And how does that play in the interactive, participative and social new-media world? Er, not very well.

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