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Elections, brands and digital disenfranchisement

Posted by Max Tatton-Brown on 28th April 2010

“Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all others that have been tried.”  Or so Churchill used to say.  The fact is, it’s currently the best way we know to make sure “the masses” can express their views with ease and effectiveness.

Social media has given the world a new voice, and one which has been embraced with unprecedented vigour.  In fact, it’s not infrequently described as “word-of-mouth on crack”, a reflection of its power to bring even the biggest brands to their knees.

But recently, we’ve seen politicians trying to come to grips with something they can’t control.  Leading the charge came MyDavidCameron.comwhich helped people deface and more importantly, share, the Conservative’s first “We can’t go on like this” campaign poster.  We need only look at the 42 point red, bold-font expletives on during their “Cash Gordon” campaign for further proof that this undermining of political efforts isn’t a flash in the pan.

So, it’s clear that the public gets it, but it’s disheartening to find most MPs still disenfranchising themselves by not taking part in person.  Ironically, at the same time, the UK tech community has had to watch the same politicians pass the Digital Economy Bill (D.E.B.) when some of them don’t even know what an IP address is.

All this makes the matter of social media’s influence on the coming election a bit of a tough one to call.  However, it does make it clear that most activity is the work of parties’ dedicated new media teams rather than MPs themselves.

Indeed, Joe Rospars, who famously drove Obama’s successful online election efforts, has criticised the Tories’ work for ignoring the real lesson; the idea that what matters most is the mobilisation of real people.

One thing’s for sure, social media was always going to display a burst of political discussion as the election drew closer.  But when politicians choose not to embrace these discussions, they’re sacrificing a democratic opportunity to mobilise the people they represent.

Style of your substance

Some would say that a key issue is the lack of a quality product – in this case, appealing policies and/or leaders.  Indeed, Clegg’s recent surge of success after the television debates has demonstrated how a new offering in the market can energise a disillusioned audience.

Most importantly, the example of #nickcleggsfault on Twitter soon after, saw the public undermining the traditional media’s assertions with a self-created and governed campaign. This crowdswell provides the positive contrast to the Conservatives unfortunate dabbling – mobilised people power is the catalyst which gets the ball rolling.

Although their record is improving, it’s easy to see big brands making a lot of these same mistakes.  Even worse, for many, a paralysing fear of what they may lose has blinded them to the potential gains.

With social media’s democratic potential, the biggest opportunity here is arguably for the smaller firms to stand up on the even ground it presents and gain disproportionate mindshare in the area.  Just like Clegg, clever businesses can punch above their weight and reach the same breadth of audience as their larger competitors, but it’s vital to be bringing something new to the table.

Ultimately, even the greatest social media strategy may be undermined by a weak product and if you indulge the voice of the people, you very quickly discover the truth.  But in exchange for giving up control of the venue, it pays to take any opportunity you can to provide influence, not as a dictator but as a humble voice among peers.

“For all their databases and search – engine tricks, you have to ask what is the quality of interaction most people will have with the Tories during your British election. If they’re still only getting leaflets, or even emails, and not a knock on the door from a neighbour they know, then they are only halfway to getting what we did.”

— Joe Rospars, Obama’s online guru

picture credit

Max Tatton-Brown