Politicians and the internet: pitfalls and opportunities

As the election looms, we watch the campaigns of all parties ramp up a notch in an effort to secure support on polling day.

Whilst old habits die hard, gone are the days when electioneering was limited to the traditional methods of door-knocking, relentless leafleting and billboard advertising. In an age of social media and online interaction with an ever-growing cyber-savvy electorate, each party wants to seize the opportunity to engage us online. But are their attempts effective?

We don't need to look far for online blunders exposing the pitfalls of politicians online (cross-party, I might add). Take, for example, George Osborne's 2013 tweet with a picture of him snacking on a burger whilst working late on his spending review speech. As it transpired, the burger was a gourmet offering from Byron, worth around a tenner, undermining his attempt to appear as a "man of the people". Then there was Ed Miliband's typo as he took to Twitter to pay tribute to Bob Holness after his death, only to replace the 'o' with an 'a' in Blockbusters. Despite swift deletion, the tweet had already gone viral causing him huge embarrassment.

The Liberal Democrats have sought to engage the online audience with a Game of Thrones Photoshop campaign. Whilst the images provide measured amusement for fans of the fantasy drama who also have an interest in politics, they haven't been a huge success, with fewer shares than might have been hoped.

More recently we've seen accusations of Grant Shapps doctoring his Wikipedia page to remove negative entries and improve his online image. He has denied the claims, but the suspicion alone is enough to demonstrate the importance of maintaining a positive online image, and of course, were these accusations to be well-founded this image would take a blow.

An online presence can also expose politicians to negative PR that is way out of their control. Good examples are the thousands of abusive tweets to the Prime Minister with the unflattering hashtag #dishface, or the hijacking of UKIP's #WhyImVotingUkip, where political rivals have found endless amusement inventively knocking and ultimately denting this online campaign.

Whilst these examples might be enough to make politicians shy away from social media, you've got to be in the game to win it, and there are plenty of cases where a simple presence online is enough for the politically active to drive effective support for their champions. Just last week we saw a surge in #Milifandom, with what started as a joke undeniably providing a boost to Labour's campaign, with policy-specific Twitter conversations using the hashtag, and many Twitter users pledging their support on 7 May. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats successfully picked up on Cameron and Brown's frequent use of the phrase "I agree with Nick" at the 2010 leaders' debate, successfully transferring it to a hashtag that continues to garner online support at this election.

But why does all of this matter? Well, with a poll by Ipsos MORI last month finding that one-third of young people think social media will influence their vote, it's an audience worth entertaining. One thing is for sure, the 'online political revolution' has provided us with some entertainment through articles like this and this.

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