The technological impact no-one was expecting

I’ve often written about my scepticism of excited comments about 2010 being the first internet general election both because they miss how much at the organisational level has already been altered by the internet over the last two general elections and also because people looking at the internet’s impact on the external side of politics spend far too much time looking at the national scene when instead they should be looking at the local scene.

After the first TV debate you could already imagine the election post mortems headlined, “First internet election? Or first TV election?” Old-fashioned TV has shaken up the election: long programmes, no ad breaks, broadcasting out the same words and pictures to millions. It’s not even as is the form of the program is anything much new, with TV debates pioneered in the 1950s Sweden before hitting international headlines with the 1960 US Presidential election.

So where does this leave technology; is this election just a triumphant flourish of the old showing the new kids on the block that it’s still got some life left in it?

Well not quite. Because part of what made the impact of that first TV debate so dramatic was that the reports of who did best and who did worst were not shaped by the editorial preferences of newspapers who have long since decided who they support nor was it filtered that much by journalists with half an eye on hoping to work for the winning party’s press operation post-May 6th.

No, instead the reporting was shaped by the public’s views – because, thanks to the technological changes that allow credible quick polling (when done right) it was the public’s verdict, not that of editors or media moguls, which shaped the reporting.

Internet polling and automated phone surveying is no newer to elections than email or websites, but this is the first election in which that sort of instant polling has had a clear impact on the course of events in the way that traditional, slower polling would not have. Slow post-debate polls would have reported the public’s reaction to the media’s response to the debate; with instant polling the media’s influence is drastically reduced.

So, yes technology  has had a big impact – but not in the way anyone was expecting.

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11 Comments

  • “the reporting was shaped by the public’s views – because, thanks to the technological changes that allow credible quick polling (when done right) it was the public’s verdict, not that of editors or media moguls, which shaped the reporting”

    Absolute nonsense. The left-wing media’s desire for a more exciting race meant they leapt on Mr Clegg’s performance in the 1st debate, promoted his performance yet further, and watched the polls rise and rise. So the right-wing media attacked Clegg for a week, and declared Mr Cameron the winner of the 2nd debate.

    Twitter was full of Lib Dems saying they’d won, and Tories saying they had, and Labourites saying they had. New media, sure, but same message.

  • it’s all Nick’s fault

  • Simon Titley 24th Apr '10 - 10:20am

    Predictions that 2010 would be the first ‘internet election’ always were hype.

    However, following the backlash against the Tory press attacks on Thursday and the failure of these attacks to dent Lib Dem support, we can probably say that 2010 is the last ‘national press election’.

  • Terry Gilbert 24th Apr '10 - 10:50am

    @Simon – surely you mean 2005 WAS the last ‘national press election’…..

    @Russ – It seems to me that even the right wing media were forced to report Clegg’s victory, thus undermining their own editorial line. Mark’s point is that twitter did not influence the reporting that much – it was the media reporting of Clegg’s victory in the automated polls, which came out within minutes of the end of the first debate. Why you think this is nonsense is beyond me, I’m afraid. Of course, being allowed to debate on an equal footing helped too – a strategic blunder which one hopes Cameron would not repeat in defence of the nation if the voters were ever foolish enough to give him an overall majority.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Apr '10 - 10:59am

    The number one political web-based two-way networked sensation of this election has very little impact on public opinion.

    That seems to be an article of faith rather than anything you’ve demonstrated.

    The British National Party is a joke (though it might attract a fair few votes). The mainstream media – not the web – is calling the shots. The web has become a mere backdrop. I’ve posted a somewhat alternative point of view to yours here

    Your post makes a very strong case that the number of people with the Alexa toolbar installed who visit a party’s website is not a useful way to measure voting intention. I think that most people would have accepted that as true without needing it proved, but still, a fairly conclusive bit of research there.

    It’s not 1995. Visitors to “the” website about something is not a big deal; that’s old media thinking, where eyeballs on the page is all that counts. The internet is primarily a system for communication, and the most significant aspect of it is what people are saying to each other. This does not normally happen on the website of a political party. It’s not something you can measure in a few minutes. The technology is incidental, except that it has demolished most of the old barriers between people and introduced a whole pile of new ones.

    Opinion polling is just a minor reflection of this – people saying things to pollsters faster and more often than before. There’s a lot more communication happening between people than there has been at any other time in history, due to the internet, and communication about politics is part of that. (That last sentence has been true for the past ten years or so, and will probably continue being true for quite some time; the rate of communication is growing rapidly)

    What the effect of all that extra communication will be is difficult to predict. The quickest way to find out is to live through it.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Apr '10 - 5:03pm

    It’s not about Alexa data being flawed, it’s about “number of visitors to the party website” not meaning anything at all even if you can accurately sample it.

    So somebody looked at your website. Did they like it? Dislike it? Are they more likely to vote for your party now? Knowing that they looked at your website doesn’t answer any of these. Hence it is unsurprising that the number of visitors to a party website is not correlated with voting intention.

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