The digital revolution has disrupted old ways of doing business in every sector of the economy, every profession and every workplace. Politics is no exception, although the impact of new technology has not been as instantly alarming in parliament as it was, for example, in the music and film industries, where analogue business models collapsed. The effect on politics of millions of citizens conducting much of their day-to-day lives online has been more subtle but that does not make it less profound.
One change is that the internet creates a new terrain where political battles can be won or lost. This trend was in evidence at the last general election but since then social media networks – chief among them Facebook and Twitter – have penetrated deeper into society and become a ubiquitous feature of journalism. However, it is worth noting that, despite much breathless chatter about an internet election in 2010, it was the rather more established medium of television that had the larger impact on the campaign, because of the live debates between the three main party leaders. The same could easily be true in 2015.
A culture change to be celebrated is the effectiveness of new media at amplifying originality and exposing the sham of robotic message discipline. MPs who fire off identikit tweets with the “line to take” look ridiculous, while those who have the self-confidence to express themselves in their own voice come across well. It is an environment where authenticity flourishes and mindless artifice fails. Perhaps a result of that process will be a change in the way parties think about their communications strategies – moving away from dependency on the monolithic soundbite and rehabilitating the use of English as people speak it.
There are hazards, too. A political cycle that already seemed breathless at the pace of the rolling television news channels has become frenetic, sometimes to the point of hysteria. Perspective is often a casualty.
A case in point was last month’s Budget or, more specifically, the ill-advised online poster launched in its aftermath by the Conservatives, celebrating cuts in bingo and beer duty as helping “hard-working people do more of the things they enjoy”. The patronising tone, made excruciating by the third-person pronoun “they” (implying that “we” Conservatives amuse ourselves differently), earned the poster instant ridicule. It reinforced a caricature of haughty Tories and provoked uncomfortable questions for the Chancellor the following day when he would much rather have been enjoying the positive coverage of his newly announced pension reforms. It was, in other words, a news event in Westminster – but one that hindsight proves to have been insubstantial. Labour “won Twitter” on the afternoon of the Budget, which is no consolation for having lost the debate in the chamber and lost ground in opinion polls in the ensuing days.
There is good reason to suspect that much of the energy spent on online campaigning is wasted entrenching divisions or preaching aggressively to an already zealous choir. Strategists in the main parties appear to have reached that conclusion and increasingly focus their digital efforts on web pages that harvest email addresses and other data from potential supporters with a view to converting them to practical activism. The real value of a digital campaign lies in its capacity to mobilise people in the analogue world. The same applies to online lobbying, petition-signing and protest. So-called clicktivism can be effective as a method for raising awareness but it risks breeding complacency by generating a narcissistic hit of instant moral gratification. Ultimately there is a limit to what can be achieved in politics, as in journalism, by sitting in an office and staring at a computer screen.