Nine signs that suggest you’re about to lose an election

The pattern for modern elections has now been set. Whether it be the 2012 presidential race, the recent Scottish referendum or the forthcoming UK general election, social media has turned erstwhile casual voters into hardened campaigners… sort of.

There are, however, indicators that suggest that your side might not do so well on polling day. To give you a better chance of winning, here are 9 definitive signs that your party is about to lose the election. If any of these sound familiar, prepare for disappointment:

  • Six weeks before polling day, you decide that this election is the seminal moment of your life. You will mark this historic epiphany by changing your Twitter profile and/or Facebook picture to reflect your vote.
  • You set about carefully educating yourself on the key issues of the election by watching the most inflammatory, ill-informed and reactionary YouTube clips that endorse your position.
  • You will attack any unfavourable polling published in newspapers, demanding to know the “sample size” even though it’s clearly written at the bottom of every article. You will then skillfully discredit the data by posting comments such as: “Well they didn’t ask me.”
  • You convince yourself that “biased media” is lying to voters. You post comments on the Facebook walls of the “prejudiced cabal”, decrying their duplicity before vowing never to return. Ten minutes later you return to post another series of comments.
  • You find yourself using the sentence, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…” before detailing a nefarious plot incorporating the secret service, Rupert Murdoch and the Bilderberg group – all of whom are in cahoots to rob you of your vote.
  • You decide that voters and politicians opposing your position are mentally ill, and it’s your duty to combat their falsehoods through attacks on Twitter. Anyone posting facts is to be exposed as a traitor and agent of the state.
  • Despite being weary from a hard-fought election campaign in which you haven’t knocked on a single door or made a single phone call, you pull yourself away from your computer to go and get pissed while the results roll in.
  • The day after defeat you console yourself with the knowledge that the fight isn’t over. “The campaign begins again in earnest,” you say, defiantly. You are now on the front line, a relentless activist for a better future.
  • You then join a Facebook group investigating election fraud and sign a petition demanding the “rigged” vote is rerun.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

The 12-stage ‘evolution’ of a Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal

Richard Dawkins has once again been embroiled in a Twitter storm, the latest upset caused by the prominent atheist’s comments about aborting fetuses with Down syndrome.

Of course this is not the first time the esteemed Oxford academic has found himself the focus of a collective scolding from the social network – a pooled rebuke occurs roughly once every three months.

To prepare you for the inevitable repeat here are the 12 stages of any Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal:

  1. The eminent biologist will employ the rigid rationalism of his discipline to a highly emotive issue – the lack of Nobel prizes for Muslims or how some types of rape are worse than others. Dawkins will then share this insight with his one million followers on Twitter.
  2. A cluster of Dawkins’ devotees will debate the professor’s contention in a reasoned and scientific fashion.
  3. Someone negatively affected by Dawkins’ clinical assertion will spot the tweet and take issue with his post, replying “really?? #twat”.
  4. A Twitter user with Jesus/crescent moon as their profile picture will call Dawkins a “c*nt”, likening the biologist to Josef Mengele and/or Harold Shipman. Soon thereafter Herr Hitler will be invoked.
  5. A journalist will spot the reaction, read Dawkins’ original tweet and pen a quick article highlighting the “prominent atheist’s latest Twitter storm”.
  6. A member of the blue tick Twitter elite – a newsreader or “social commenter” – will pick up on the rumpus, tweeting how the professor’s original post was “indefensible” and how these comments are “the worst yet”.
  7. Twitter users with #reason, #doubt and #MissTheHitch in their profile will distance themselves from Dawkins, telling their 73 followers that The God Delusion author no longer speaks for “atheists/anti-theists”.
  8. Dawkins will continue to defend his position, while other media outlets pen similar hit-focused articles on the brouhaha, many highlighting his past Twitter indiscretions. Right-wing media in the US will pick up on the tempest, decrying Dawkins as the emblem of a world “abandoned by God”.
  9. People personally affected by the issue of Dawkins’ original post will pen angry responses to Independent Voices and the Huffington Post, many concluding with the line: “How can such a clever man can be so stupid?”
  10. Dawkins will issue an apology via his website for the “misunderstanding” and though he will concede his “phraseology” was wrong he will maintain his “logic” was sound.
  11. Attempting to squeeze a few last hits out of the now-subsiding “outrage”, a journalist will write a meta-piece attempting to explain the anatomy of a Dawkins Twitter scandal.
  12. Wait 90 days and repeat.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Twitter, trust and a silly tune…

Twitter made for interesting reading on Tuesday night. The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which lurched from grubby to sinister in one afternoon, dominated the trending with Rebekah Brooks and News International both high on the UK list.

Top spot, however, was claimed (no doubt reluctantly) by Cher Lloyd. The urchin-like former X Factor contestant’s debut single Swagger Jagger had gone live on YouTube, amassing an instant 47,963 dislikes. Sorry – having sat through it 47,964. The tune isn’t actually that bad, but in the new media landscape once a trend gets going…

Twitter also chimed to the sound of Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, whose news aggregation site has done much to shape the modern media terrain in which we all now amble. The grande dame of online content was in town to launch the UK version of the web-based newspaper, which was recently acquired by AOL for $315million. The front page of the launch edition splashed with a piece on Brooks and her increasingly nefarious employer. A metaphor for the online attack on print? Why not… but also a cracking news day on which to launch a paper.

The first edition was accompanied by a debate at Millbank on Wednesday evening, in which La Huffington was joined by Alistair Campbell, Jon Gaunt, Celia Walden, Shami Chakrabarti and, bizarrely, Kelly Osbourne, the latter offering shots of comic genius – “why should anyone pay for the news?” with mixers of the surreal – “are you journalists frightened by Twitter?”

Trust proved the evening’s major theme. Does the public still trust the media? Is citizen journalism more reliable than traditional reporting? Dare we eat the dill and prawn canapés?

Throughout the debate, a Twitter feed ran in the background reminding us that in this not so brave new world anyone could say anything and everyone has a say. As the chat progressed, the upside to all this content was made clear. Blogs and social networks offer access to information and commentators that you may not have otherwise heard of. Agreed – I’m not sure how I would have found people like Sam Harris, Slavoj Žižek, Max Blumenthal, P Z Myers et al had it not been through Twitter or YouTube. Also, the interconnection of media enables you to access great swathes of information from a single source, while opinion either individual or grouped has never been easier to disseminate. This all works for me. However, there seems to be a downside and one that was only briefly touched upon at the gathering.

Witness the US experience in which an increasingly diverse media appears to have exacerbated the polarisation of political views, with left and right entrenched like the soldiers facing each other across the Somme. There are, of course, other factors at work beyond the Atlantic, but the fact that individuals and groups now have the ability to publish via blogs and social networks seems to confer a legitimacy to anyone with a computer, regardless of how fringe their views. Also, if every available opinion is out there, is it not instinctive for most consumers to see out information that reinforces their pre-existing opinions?

During the debate, the proprietor suggested that in the US distrust towards old media may be due to the experience of Iraq, when newspapers were used by the administration to sell a war on shoddy information. Fair enough, but there also seems to be a climate in the US whereby any media outside a persons’ core network raises suspicion.

Covering a political conference in Washington earlier this year (for a UK paper) I found myself constantly being asked by attendees which news organisation I worked for. This was nearly always followed by the question “are they left or are they right?” Even then, I was occasionally further tested with questions about my own personal stance on a range of issues, including one exchange with a woman who demanded to know my feelings on the legacy of The Gipper. All this before she’d even consider answering one of my questions. It was like having to audition for your own interview. And these weren’t extras from Deliverance splashed with mud from a tractor pull, but highly intelligent, highly articulate and very politically aware activists from every state in the union.

To quote the creator of Craig’s List, “trust is the new black”. And trust it seems is in very short supply at the moment, whether that’s potential presidential candidates mocking the “lame stream media”, or Tweeters in the UK campaigning for advertisers to pull cash from the News of the World. How this plays out in both countries is anyone’s guess. Still, the new media age is here to stay and the benefits to consumers (and journalists) seem to far out way the pitfalls. As such, the arrival of The Huffington Post in the UK should be a welcome addition to the media firmament, and one that will hopefully prove as popular here as it has stateside.

Twitter made for equally interesting reading on Wednesday night. The phone hacking story rumbled on thanks to a piece by Peter Oborne, topped only by the latest sacking on The Apprentice. As was pointed out at the debate, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. And with the exception of the unfortunate Cher Lloyd, whose dislikes had now risen to 57,456, it appears we’ll all be entertaining for a long time yet…

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.

How politicians should use social media

Organising a night out, poking your friends, catching up with a schoolmate you last saw in 1987 … Facebook has become a vital part of our social lives, but it could decide something a lot more important that whether you’re heading to the Dog and Duck tonight. It’s going to play a big part in who runs Britain. With an election happening in less than a month, politicians have woken up to the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At stake are not only the keys to No 10, but – and more profoundly – how the Government engages with the people from here on in.

The general election on 6 May will mark the start of the campaigning season proper for parties, politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates. Much of the debate will take a traditional form, using door-knocking, posters and broadcasts. Yet in the last five years since the British electorate (or at least 61 per cent of them) took to the polls, the world has evolved beyond measure.

The development of social networking, alongside the unprecedented growth in online video content, added to an upsurge in broadband access – an increase of 28 per cent between 2006 and 2009 according to the Office of National Statistics – has transformed us into an increasingly cyber society, forcing politicians to adapt with varying degrees of success. Gordon Brown’s YouTube video on MPs’ expenses is unlikely to be remembered as a high water mark for the integration of politics and technology.

For anyone in public office, engaging in personalised interaction can be like dancing on a trap door. From America, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ill-advised tweet on Judge Sonia Sotomayor – “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw” – stands as a clear warning.

Yet, for every ill-conceived tweet or detrimental status update, there have been myriad successes for politicians, campaigners and pressure groups hoping to make a mark. Writing recently in this paper, Kerry McCarthy, Britain’s Twitter Tsar, said that MPs tweet because it can “reveal the person behind the politician; their principles, their passions, their personality. It’s the authentic voice that comes through, of the MP and in aggregate, of the Party”. So there can be a political reward. It’s also, she suggests, “good fun”.

Since it launched in 2006, Facebook has matured from a tool for keeping in touch with friends to a powerful and highly effective way of grouping communities, offering a collective voice to anyone with an internet connection.

This was highlighted in January when Islam4UK, an offshoot of the banned Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, was banned under counter-terrorism laws, following a Facebook campaign.

Grass roots campaigns are one thing. An election campaign is another. But if Westminster was slow on the uptake about social networks, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, founded on a campaign with a comprehensive online strategy, should have proved portentous.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, Thomas Gensemer, the mastermind behind Obama’s online campaign, said that the ideal is “an integrated strategy that includes third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter”, working alongside more established methods, such as door-to-door petitioning.

Many factors played a part in securing the White House for the Democrats in 2008. Still, $560m in online fundraising goes a long way, especially when allied to an enthusiastic support mobilised via the web.

For Richard Allen, a former Liberal Democratic politician now employed as the Director of EU policy at Facebook, the use of social networking by the Obama campaign made people feel more empowered. “An Obama supporter in the backwoods of Oklahoma, who would previously have found it difficult to do anything practical, could now get together with other supporters. This allowed them to take ownership of the campaign rather than passively waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This dramatically extended the Democrats’ reach.”

Allen also believes having a single presidential candidate around which to orientate the campaign made it easier for US activists to engage with the electorate. “In the UK there’s a much more complex relationship between the parties and the voters. When you cross the ballot paper, you’re not crossing it for David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. You’re crossing the ballot for whoever your local candidate is.”

Looking at the Facebook fan pages of the party leaders suggests the British electorate has been slow to embrace parliamentary politics via the site – so far. David Cameron leads with 17,500 followed by Gordon Brown (4,000) and Nick Clegg (3,500).

These figures will no doubt rise in the coming weeks (David Cameron has added 3,500 fans in the last two months). The official party pages on Facebook, however, are in good health – the Conservatives’ page is the most popular, boasting around 25,000 fans and plenty of daily updates.

At the constituency level, MPs such as Tom Watson, the Labour candidate for West Bromwich East, have been building an online community for years through blogs and, more recently, Twitter. However, the problem for MPs such as Watson is that online communities have no regional boundaries. As such, members of his online community may have absolutely no say in returning him to parliament next month. Still, more politicians of all stripes are turning to social networking as a way to communicate. Following the success of Tweet Congress in America, a British version launched in December 2008 offering access to tweets from politicians, as well as political commentators and news services. Called Tweetminster, the service aggregates Tweets from the political world.

A recent Tweetminster report focusing on political traffic makes for interesting reading. Collated throughout 2009, the document suggests that MPs, prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) and grass-roots supporters representing Labour are the most active on Twitter, with more followers than both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats combined. But it also suggests that the Conservatives boast a greater reach, with official party posts receiving more mentions and retweets. In short, Labour supporters at the bottom are driving the Twitter conversation on the centre left, whilst official Conservative tweets from the top are driving the conversation from the centre right. Tweets and Retweets from the Liberal Democrats featured both grass roots and official traffic. Despite the surprisingly neutral conclusion of the research, the report still had Labour and Conservative supporters locking horns in the blogosphere over which party was the dominant force on Twitter. Such are the stakes.

According to Tweetminster co-founder Alberto Nardelli, “there is likely to be a significant rise in the number of candidates and MPs using Twitter in the run-up to the election. However, as it takes time to build a following and those that join late will struggle to find value in a short period of time.”

So those MPs not currently on Twitter may have missed the boat. Still, there are already large numbers on the site – 111 MPs and 226 candidates at the beginning of the year. What impact they will have on the election is difficult to quantify, especially as Twitter isn’t just an interaction between MPs and the electorate. Another important part of the equation is the traditional media, whether that’s newspapers, the BBC, Sky News or any other major news gatherer. While social networks may be able to set the agenda, it takes the force of traditional media to frame it.

For Nardelli, this is the key to how Twitter will influence the election. “More and more articles are using Twitter as a source, so it really depends on how traditional media interpret these stories.” And like any source, Tweets can be bent by the media to fit an agenda. In February, the Daily Mail ran a story suggesting that David Cameron had “ordered his party’s candidates to submit their online utterances [Tweets] for vetting”. According to Nardelli, Tory candidates had simply been asked to “be careful when discussing official Conservative policy”, a far cry from the “strict edicts” mentioned in the paper. The story was picked up by other papers and even received a mention on Newsnight.

So it’s the same cat and mouse game politicians have always played with the media, just using new tools. Still, the benefits seem to be outweighing the potential hazards, so much so that between January and March this year 16 MPs and 59 PPCs joined Twitter. That means nearly 19 per cent of parliament currently Tweets, a figure that should rise with the influx of current PPCs after the election.

Tweet Congress offers similar uptake figures for American politicians, yet Nardelli sees far more direct interaction between politicians and the electorate in Britain. “In the US lots of politicians have Twitter feeds but they tend to link to press releases or official blogs.” In short, you’re unlikely to find your local congressman sat at home trying to squeeze comment into 140 characters. In the UK, it generally is your local MP.

Before a Commons Liaison Committee, Gordon Brown recently spoke of broadening the franchise by lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, no doubt an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, carrying overtures of electoral reform should there be a hung parliament after the election. It may also point towards a new attempt to engage with the younger demographic, mindful of their potentially significant voice harmonised by social networking. Yet it’s important to remember that these sites aren’t just playthings for listless teens. According to Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on the site is over 55-year-old women. Whatever the outcome in May, from here on in we’re all going to have a say.

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.

Griffin’s right to be heard

The debacle over Jan Moir’s recent article, in which Stephen Gately’s death was used as a winch with which to hold up the evils of civil partnerships, has meant freedom of the press is now under increasing scrutiny.

There was similar outrage on display yesterday when a group of protestors charged into the BBC car park over the Corporation’s decision to allow BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time. Those wishing to see Griffin denied a platform, like those calling for Moir to be muzzled, no doubt act with good intentions. However the cost of denying either their right to speak is too high, even in the face of an almost inhumanly callous article or the political views of an odious right-wing bigot.

The demonstrators, there to publicise their antipathy towards Griffin’s politics, trampled over barriers as they forced their way into Auntie HQ. Unfortunately, they were also trampling, whether knowingly or not, over one of the most sacred traditions in modern political thought.

It’s exactly 150 years since John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, the treatise which, alongside the writings of the French Revolution, lay the foundations for freedom of speech. It was a radical idea at the time, now commonplace, almost banal.

Yet the tenet appears to be increasingly under attack, whether it’s Muslims ordering the death of a Danish cartoonist, Christians demanding the closure of Jerry Springer the Opera, calls for police action over homophobic article, or Liberals storming Television Centre over a guest on a panel show.

In hindsight, the protestors should be thankful they failed. Despite the build-up, more akin to a boxing match than the usual Thursday night fare, the broadcast proved nothing more than a dog and pony show as Griffin, dressed in moderate guise, put up little fight, even in the face of fellow panelists, seemingly hand-picked for a lack of intellectual cut and thrust.

So utterly hopeless was the BNP front man that Jack Straw was able to reinvent himself as the enforcer, a Blackburn-born bruiser who wasn’t afraid to wag his bony finger at Griffin, even if it meant cutting across Dimbleby’s eye line. The BNP leader, his own eyes lurching independently from side to side, responded to Straw’s onslaught by digging himself a succession of large holes, much to the delight of the unusually boisterous crowd.

The most interesting note of the early exchanges was a question posed by a young man in a Newcastle United top. And black and white soon proved the focal point for the discussion, as Griffin, already stumbling over his words, was taken to task over a series of quotations around holocaust denial and the true agenda of the right wing party. As a contest it was over, but not before Straw put in a few more hay makers.

“Your politics are based on colour,” stormed the Justice Secretary.

“Colour is irrelevant,” bleated back the evening’s bête noir.

Griffin fared little better on the question on British Muslims; with Baroness Warsi pointing out that the BNP leader had once shared a stage with Abu Hamza. They have more than a stage in common. Meanwhile, the real fun was online, with social network sites offering real-time comment as the drama unfurled. Twitter, a network with a “liberals only” recruitment policy, scoffed at the pantomime villain, tweeting and re-tweeting his every agonising line. “We’re the white aborigines” did some business.

The “non-violent Ku-Klux-Klan” did some more.  Equally lively was Facebook, with status updates on the show adding to a wealth of articles and opinion that had formed throughout the day. Interestingly, the Beeb, perhaps dismayed at the one sided nature of the affair, tried to even things up via the red button, with plenty of messages of support for the BNP making it onto the texting message board.

Back at Television Centre, the show was nearing its farcical end as the non-BNP panellists, fresh from fifty minutes of table banging on the joys of multiculturalism, set about a distasteful natter on which of them took the strongest line on immigration. It was a fitting denouement to what had been an amusing if slightly unpleasant evening’s viewing.

Still, that’s the price we all pay for the right to speak our mind. In the ongoing battle against censorship and restriction, the Great British public should feel proud that this type of debate can take place here. Let’s just hope they weren’t all smiles in the green room after the show.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.