The new media evangelists who preached of a revolution in British electoral politics will have to wait until at least the next election to see their prophecies come to fruition. In this country steeped in electoral tradition, the impact of new and social media on the 2010 race was minimal. The British still consume high tea and scones, watch football at the local pub, and obsess over the royal family. They also still rely on the traditional news media for political information and analysis.

TV Debate, Bigot-Gate

It wasn’t Twitter or YouTube but rather the television that most shaped the 2010 election in the U.K. Fifty years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates were beamed into living rooms across the U.S., for the first time in its history the U.K. staged a live television debate between party leaders.

Britain’s cacophonous 24-hour news channels then scrutinized the debate, which was also put up on YouTube. Major newspapers gave away their inky analysis for free outside subway stations. Large-font tabloids captured pedestrians’ attention as they walked by street vendors.

Thanks to the Bigot-gate episode, there were also some scandalous things for professional pundits to dig their teeth into. “Bigot-gate” occurred when Labour leader Gordon Brown forgot that his microphone was still on when he called a 65-year old Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, a “bigoted woman.” This clip was then re-broadcast ad nauseum by the 24-hour news networks.

Yes, it was TV that most changed the game this time around.

As Rory Cellan Jones, the BBC’s chief technology correspondent, wrote on his blog after the polls closed, “This was not an Internet election, and all those who had suggested it might be had got it completely wrong. It was a television election, and all of those tweeters and bloggers were sad political obsessives talking to each other.”

Watch this special MediaShift video report I made about the impact of new media on the U.K. election, including interviews with various British people on how they decided to vote:

New Media Activity

But don’t run from the pews of the church of new media just yet. Some snippets of new media activity are worth looking into. The two dominant news TV channels, the BBC and Sky News, both saw an increase in traffic to the their websites during the election. This was also true for the websites of all the daily newspapers.

There were also examples of top-down, directed efforts from the campaigns to galvanize support online. Most of this was done by the Conservative party, who built an Obama-esque website to fundraise and generate PR.

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They pushed a website called WebCameron, which showed the Tory leader having breakfast with his kids while giving political sermons. They also launched a grassroots fundraising initiative. But with only three weeks of actual campaign time in the British parliamentary system, compared to nearly two years in the U.S. system, the website failed to gather the necessary momentum to reach critical mass. (Cameron has been pushing new media for some time, as you can read about in this MediaShift story about politicians using online video from 2007.)

Still, the conservatives managed to raise more money than any other party — though it came mostly through traditional channels. They also spent the most on their digital marketing advertising campaign, according to ClickZ, which also profiled the party’s digital plans.

The U.K. is the first country in the world in which digital advertising has surpassed television advertising, and the Tories certainly made their presence felt on Google. Their paid spots came up on the sidebar of my browser after entering various election-related search terms. The Tories also boldly paid for placement on the front page of YouTube on Election Day, urging viewers to vote for their party.

By comparison, the Labour party did not appear to make much of an effort online. Their Twitter and Facebook pages were not as popular, nor were they updated as regularly as the pages of their conservative or Liberal Democrat counterparts, according to ClickZ. They were also plagued by two embarrassing online faux pas. One Labour candidate used his Twitter account to curse out political opponents, and was consequently relieved of his position. Another Labour candidate was suspended after boasting of his sexual exploits online.

The Liberal Democrats, typically an inconspicuous third party, were made more visible due to their inclusion in the television debates. The party also hired a new media manager to organize their online efforts. Their official website was linked to their Twitter, Facebook, and YouYube pages, all of which were updated regularly. The Lib Dems also used their Facebook page to promote a day of flash mobs all over the U.K. on the Bank Holiday just before the elections.

Unofficial Online Activity

There were also plenty of unofficial, partisan websites created just for the election. One was a semi-satirical site that mocked the Conservative leader in every way possible. Several ad hoc online groups also were launched on Twitter and Facebook.

One of the more popular Facebook groups was called Vandalised Conservative Billboards, which showed pictures of defaced Tory ads. This group was twice as popular as the official Conservative Facebook page. Another Facebook group, We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office had over 165,000 followers — also twice as many as the Liberal Democrats’ official Facebook page. Then there was the Twitter hashtag #iblamenickclegg, which made fun of the mainstream media’s slurs against the candidate:

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Facebook also created a U.K. Democracy page and linked British users — all 25 million of them — to a poll if they signed into the social network on Election Day. (Even though I’m not a U.K. citizen or resident, my Facebook page was directed to the poll since my IP address indicated that I was in the U.K. on May 6, so technically I could have even participated.)

Of the half a million who cast a vote in this unofficial poll, 42 percent supported Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats to become prime minister, ahead of 31 percent who supported David Cameron and 27 percent who supported Gordon Brown. This poll proved to be off the mark when compared to the actual results, which placed Clegg firmly in third place.

This disparity is explained pretty easily. The demographics of the average Facebook user versus the average British voter are quite different. In the U.K., 4 out of 10 votes cast are by people aged 55 years or older. The largest segment of Facebook users in the U.K., however, is the 20-29 age range. Echo Research, an organization which conducted a nationwide telephone survey on how social media affected voters, found that social media ranked highest in importance among 18-24 year olds. The fact remains that the older you are in Britain, the less likely you are to engage in social media — and the more likely you are to vote.

TV Still Reigns

While the impact of media on politics is always subject to debate, TV clearly still reigns in the U.K. in terms of popularity. In the same Echo Research survey, 85 percent of the populace used the TV to get information on candidates and issues, compared to 48 percent for Internet sites, 32 percent for social media, and 19 percent for the local pub. Over 8 million people watched the third debate live on television all across the U.K. During that debate, according to Tweetminster, a digital monitoring site, there were 154,342 tweets relating to various terms around the leaders’ debate, coming at 26.77 tweets a second, spread among 33,095 people.

How many people were influenced by the televised debates and the tweets is difficult to know. While the debates did lead to wild swings in the opinion polls, particularly for the formerly unnoticed Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Clegg, the changes may not have been meaningful when it came time to tick the ballot box. Even TV’s impact on this election is questionable.

“TV changed the game but probably didn’t change the result,” Charlie Beckett, director of the U.K. think-tank Polis, told me in an interview. Evidence of this may be the fact that the actual voting results mostly reflected the polls conducted before the debates.

But it may just be the TV debate that will pave the way for social media in future elections. According to Beckett, the TV debate heralded in a new type of interaction between politicians and voters.

“For the first time ever in Britain, voters were able to hear the direct messages of the candidates without any journalistic filters,” he said.

This demand for a more personal, direct approach to politician-voter interactions may soon be met with a greater presence on social media sites, shifting the dynamic between voters and political parties.

Social media has also altered the dynamic between the mainstream media and the public. In this election it served as a check and balance system against the mainstream media, as well as a sounding board to be used by the mainstream media. Social media has the power to serve as a catalyst for stories that might otherwise fizzle out. At the same time, it can also provide alternate viewpoints for biased stories that might otherwise be unchallenged.

Beckett said that social media did impact this election, although probably not the results, in several ways. Here’s a summary of his points:

  1. Social media served as an amplifier for the discussion created by the mainstream media.
  2. While there was no blogger who came out and broke an important story, the political parties were very cautious about making mistakes that could haunt them in the blogosphere.
  3. Journalists had their Twitter pages updated regularly, using social media to promote their stories.
  4. Mainstream media smear campaigns were kept in check by blogs and Facebook groups who could provide another perspective.
  5. The Net provided additional exposure for minority parties who don’t receive adequate coverage in mainstream media.

The impact of social media on this election is analogous to learning how to ride a bike for the first time. It is important to remember that Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist as valid options the last time Britain went to the polls. The politicians, the media, and the public were all eager to try out all these new tools at their disposal. They jumped right into it, some slower than others, and experimented with different ideas. But this new world of social media, like riding a bike, can be a tricky one to master.

Now is the time for the various players to absorb the lessons from this election, and get back on the bike. Perhaps in five years time, the training wheels will finally come off.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron is the founder of Falafel TV, a documentary production company, and regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

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