I have just spoken at a Smith Institute debate on whether the 2010 election will be the “IT” election.

The Smith Institute invite explains:

“This will be the first election campaign where ‘tweeting’, ‘social networking’ and ‘blogging’ will be in eveidence. But how much of a role will the new information technology play, and do the politicians really understand it? This debate will address these and other related issues concerning the use of new technology in election campaigning.”

I have to admit that when I heard the topic with IT shown as “IT”, my mind was inevitably drawn to the Wikipedia definition of an “IT” girl:

“An It girl or It-girl is a charming, sexy young woman who receives intense media coverage unrelated or disproportional to personal achievements. The reign of an “It girl” is usually temporary; some of the rising It girls will either become fully-fledged celebrities or their popularity will fade. The term “It boy”, much less frequently used, is the male equivalent. This term is unrelated to the abbreviation IT.”

I don’t know about IT or its proponents in the next election being charming or sexy, but they are certainly receiving intense media attention and in my view it is probably disproportionate to likely achievement.

And indeed my view is that 2010 is not going to be the General Election where the result will be determined by bloggers, Twitter or social media.  This opinion is no doubt a jaundiced one, but there were similar claims about the significance of IT before previous General Elections.  Some will remember the claims made for the Labour Party’s Excalibur system in the run up to the 1997 Election …..

My argument is that 95% of the electorate will cast their votes in blissful ignorance of what has been going on in the blogosphere and – as in previous Elections – their votes will be influenced by their past allegiances, their perceptions of what the Parties stand for in policy terms, and their assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the different Party leaderships.

So the question is what influences those perceptions and assessments – what creates the zeitgeist?  The answer is still predominantly television, radio and newspapers.

Over time this changes: television was not a factor in the elections of 1950 and 1951 and probably did not become really significant until 1964; newspapers are no longer decisive (The Sun may have boasted that it won it in 1992, but I doubt that the same will be plausible in 2010.).

People are increasingly getting their news and opinion in new ways.  However, the old media – at present, at least – are still central.  Nevertheless, politicians need to adapt to the changing media landscape and master the new ways of communicating – as Roosevelt did with radio in the 1930s and as Wilson and later Blair did with television in this country.

But – and it is a big but – even though the new media are not yet decisive and mastery of them is not yet obligatory for an effective politician, new media will have a significant indirect impact on the forthcoming Election.  This will be manifested in the way they impact on the terms of the debate reported by the traditional media.

Individual bloggers will from time to time set the agenda, rumours in hyperspace will eventually get reported, bloggers will subject policy statements from the main Parties to rigorous analysis and fact-checking, and the speed of the blogosphere and the rapidity with which material (particularly “gaffes”) can be spread on YouTube and via Twitter will challenge the traditional media and require a more fleet-of-foot response from the political parties and from politicians.

There will be a premium on seeding material in the blogosphere and on harvesting useful information or arguments that emerge there.  Political parties will be able to energise their supporters and communicate with them more rapidly.  And there will undoubtedly be benefits for those individual politicians who can communicate effectively in the new media, retaining their own authenticity whilst avoiding creating (too many)  hostages to fortune.

Are the political parties and our leading politicians going to be able to meet this challenge?  Well, we will soon find out.

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