Last night I went along to a conference organised by Lewis PR. I went with two hats on - Lewis are a client of ours at Social Media Libary, so social media is the field I work in; my primary motivation, however, was to see what the experts thought about the role social media is having in the election campaign. Much has been written, but there's no substitute for having someone put behind a microphone and questioned.
Lewis were great hosts and put on copious drinks and nibbles. The conference was in the form of a panel discussion, with a slightly cringeworthy (though interesting) video introduction. The four speakers each had a few minutes to present a speech (I found out afterwards that they hadn't been warned about this). I'm afraid I missed much of what Dan Burton, of sponsors Salesforce, was saying as my attention was focussed on the big screen where there was a live Twitter feed for comments from the floor. It was a little too distracting at times but a great idea and provided plenty of amusing moments.
The event was hosted by Paul Evans, with the Evening Standard's deputy Political Editor, Paul Waugh*, Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt and Labour's Tom Watson making up the panel. The discussion itself was mostly confined to mainstream generalisations about the way blogs and Twitter can have an impact on politics. For people who were fairly clued up there was little by way of insight; Jeremy Hunt mad an interesting comparison between the way political organisations approach social media today to the way email was first handled ten years ago. Through pure hard slog, local party groups were able to slowly build up email databases - similarly, there's no easy way of building vast databases of social media contacts (I should know; I do it for a living!)
Paul Evans opened the debate by asking for a show of hands from the floor of how many people felt social media would make a "big" impact in the election, how many people thought it would have a "slight" impact, and how many people thought it would have no impact at all. Very, very few people plumped for the first option - and this from an audience with many PR and social media professionals in its midst. Tom Watson was of the opinion that this would not be the social media election but the TV election, thanks to the upcoming televised debates between the party leaders; there seemed to be general assent to this point. I'm unsure; the debates may be enough to push the undecided towards a snap decision based on an hour's footage, but my own feeling is that social media is more fundamentally influential.
As I mentioned last week, I get the sense that social media has made the electorate more clued up about issues and policy. Your average voter now not only has an opinion on the state of the economy, but also on the best way to sort it out and whether we should be cutting the budget deficit or spending our way out of trouble - a pretty fundamental dividing line between the three main parties. Twitter's "dumbing-down" effect of reducing everything to bite-size chunks has probably helped people understand what's going on in nice, easy soundbite form, while forums allow detailed political discussions between amateurs who probably wouldn't have them in the pub; I myself have had political arguments on forums dedicated to music and policing respectively - and have learned new opinions and slants on issues. Social media is a powerful knowledge-sharing tool.
Paul Waugh made the point that social media is only influential if stories break into the mainstream. As a journalist, my impression was that he meant stories are only heard by the masses if they are picked up by a mainstream journalist. This is too simplistic. The social media word-of-mouth chain reaction doesn't work like that - often a piece is written on an obscure blog, picked up and spread on Twitter, then migrates to blogs and forums, and thence to Facebook, where if enough people pick up on it, the story can be truly called mainstream without ever having touched the traditional media. Many of the top political bloggers, consistently called "influential" by the mainstream press, only have about 1000 Twitter followers.
A classic example is MyDavidCameron. I've waxed lyrical about this before so I won't go into it again (see my SML piece for example) but I got on the case with it quite early on and watched it spread via forums to Facebook long before it finally got picked up on by the papers (ironically, I believe the Mail might have been one of the earliest papers to cover it). At the drinks afterwards, somebody noted that satirical websites are likely only to reach the middle classes which is a fair point - although I've seen discussion of MyDavidCameron on football forums too. MDC's creator, Clifford Singer, was in the audience - I was too star-struck to approach him (once again, fine work sir).
The panel discussion seemed to be cut very short - indeed I had a question up my sleeve, although I had a few good chats about it afterwards. I had wanted to ask the panel what their thoughts were on social media turning GE2010 into the dirtiest election yet. Social media, if used with cunning (not something that politicians tend to have great reserves of), can kickstart some very underhand campaigns, sabotage and subterfuge, rumours and spin, negativity and sly sockpuppeting. Printed election media is all accountable and traceable, but online communications can be far harder to trace. The vicious campaigns against Kerry McCarthy and Nadine Dorries are examples of this, as well as the comments sections on Guido Fawkes. In the case of the latter, I was told afterwards that it's only a matter of time before a big libel case emerges, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. (Another whisper I heard: there's more to come on Cameron-and-drugs...hold tight).
Talking of underhand campaigning, someone who knows a few things about that is Tim Ireland* who I had a group discussion with afterwards. I was intrigued to meet him having recently stopped following his Twitter (find out why here). Actually, Ireland was an affable, articulate Australian chap of about 40, although inevitably the discussion came around to Paul Staines and Iain Dale and once he got the bit between his teeth, he didn't stop. I drifted off into a conversation with Lib Dem blogger Darren Bridgman* (a very nice bloke) and twenty minutes later I still heard "Staines and Dale" floating over the airwaves. Ireland's sense of right and wrong impressed me greatly and I'm following his Twitter again, but I'll say what I said before: if he put as much energy into some positive campaigning for Labour, the Lib Dems or whoever he supports, rather than fanatical wars-of-words with Tory bloggers, then he might make a considerable contribution to a local campaign. I hope he focusses his efforts elsewhere.
Also in the house: top Lib Dem writer Mark Reckons*, with whom I had a quick chat about the way bloggers view PR companies' efforts to approach them with stories. It was good to have a chat with Paul Evans and Paul Waugh on the way back to the tube. I always follow Waugh's Twitter and associated blog with interest - I often disagree with much of what he says but he's always breaking interesting stories with a hint of humour and even if his bread is buttered differently to mine in some aspects, he's one of the best of the political online/offline journalists.
My own constituency is one of the most fascinating three-way battles in the country, with two of the main candidates (Liberal Democrat Ed Fordham and Tory Chris Philp) very active both on blogs and Twitter. As an example, when Fordham was interviewed by the local NW6 blog, Philp contacted the author directly and asked specifically for an interview - clearly both men believe it's as important as a morning's canvassing. The latest addition to the Hampstead & Kilburn mix is Tamsin Omond of new environmental/leftwing party The Commons; Omond herself was there with several of her teammates. I had a good chat with Emma Murphy who was intelligent and enthusiastic; I hope they don't affect the final result of the seat, but I was quite impressed by her and her colleague and good luck to them.
It was a shame that the discussion panel didn't last longer as there was definitely more mileage there. Many people commented that it was a shame that Facebook, YouTube and social networks weren't touched upon; I'm of the opinion that Facebook can be quite limiting in terms of its content and is best used as a portal to point fans towards YouTube content and external links which can be more media-heavy. Lengthy articles don't sit comfortably in Facebook - although in this bitesized age, perhaps a couple of sentences is all you need?
All in all, an interesting night. Nice to put some faces to names and thanks to Lewis PR for putting it on.
Note: asterisked* links are to other reviews/articles about last night's event. As well as the asterisked links above, there's also some good commentary from Danny Whatmough* and Paul Greenwood* and on Twitter at #lewissms.