Much of hype surrounding online campaigning is thoroughly justified. Thomas Gensemer and his Blue State Digital team, having established their credentials working for Howard Dean in the years prior, took the plaudits for helping rocket Obama to the White House – and quite rightly so. Having recruited 13.5 million supporters and raised half a billion dollars during the campaign, largely through the pioneering my.barackobama.com, they created the most successful virtual political platform in history.
Yet, as time has passed and others have tried, it becomes clearer that Obama ’08 was a shining example of the possibilities, not a benchmark for expectation, yet it represents a demonstration of the power of online campaigning.
There is no doubt that Obama ’08 changed political campaigning markedly. In Israel, Tzipi Livini recruited a film crew to follow her every move in the run up to polling day, instructing them explicitly to capture footage for her YouTube, Flickr and Facebook pages. In India, the BJP brought together a collaboration of bloggers in an attempt to build an online support network. And most recently, in the Philippines, the Commission for Elections is supporting politicalarena.com, a socio-political networking site designed to raise the profile of all would-be presidential candidates. All three examples lay credit at the door of Obama ’08.
In the UK too, all the major parties are scrambling over one another to look the most in touch with the web 2.0 generation, with both Labour and the Conservatives able to claim victories in certain spheres. The recent Tweetminster report quite rightly concluded Labour had developed a better presence on Twitter – with @DowningStreet a clear front runner for the most followed political account; with 1,739,667 followers (@Conservatives has only just crawled passed 20,000). The appointment of their own ‘Twitter Tsar’ Kerry McCarthy and the online popularity of prominent figures including John Prescott have further enabled Labour to tighten their grip on the platform.
While the Conservatives have been more innovative with their online strategies, as well as attempting to mirror my.barackobama.com with myconservatives.com, they have established Webcameron, a video blog increasingly valuable for showcasing Cameron’s natural ability to handle questions from the public at live events. They have also continued to attempt to engage the public, publishing their draft manifesto chapter-by-chapter solely through an online reader, using Google moderator as a means for the public to submit questions and comments, and frequently holding Twitter Q&As with Shadow Cabinet members.
Inconsistency threatens progress
There is, however, still a huge gulf between what emanates in Westminster and what transpires in the constituencies across the UK. For all the excitement and good work of those based in CCHQ, for example, my conversations with Conservative candidates at their Brighton Spring Conference indicates a patchy and wholly inconsistent attitude to social media capabilities.
We at Get Elected have been helping individual candidates develop their online presence over the past year or so, yet throughout it has become apparent the majority are still are not using social media or the possibilities offered online. Our report out next month will publish the results of how candidates across 100 seats are using online sites to bolster their campaign. Early indications seem to confirm candidates, across all major parties, to largely be paying lip-service to their online campaign. Facebook fan pages with fewer than 10 fans, Twitter accounts without a single tweet and blogs remaining stagnant for months are all worryingly common.
Candidates must realise social media sites are the means, not the ends. Candidates merely offering lip-service to online platforms do themselves an injustice, and are more likely to lose the support of those engaged online by appearing languid and inactive.
Moreover, the power of Facebook, Twitter and the many others, lies mainly in the power to organise and rally. That is what Obama did so well and that is what candidates must attempt to mirror. Mybarackobama.com allowed volunteers to create 3.2 million Facebook-style individual profiles on the site and plan 200,000 events.
It is this ability to turn virtual into reality, turning online supporters into canvassers, organisers and tea-makers that is the most important asset of online campaigning. Without interactivity with the host or other users and offering regular updates, candidates simply won’t achieve this.
So while many, including those in the headquarters of our major UK parties, get excited by the possible impact of online campaigning, the evidence of patchy take-up from candidates urges caution. What’s more, if this remains, those on the losing side of what is sure to be a close election battle may well curse the lack of a congenial and consistent online strategy.
James Knight is director of Get Elected.