In my opinion: Murray Cox: Will the 2010 UK General Election be the first social media election in the UK?

WILL the 2010 UK General Election be the first social media election in the UK? Yes and no.

Yes, insofar as the parties are using Twitter, blogs, Facebook and all manner of digital paraphernalia more than ever before.

But an unequivocal no in terms of the parties truly embracing these digital tools to engage voters and have a real conversation about ideas and policies.

At the moment, it feels like the wannabe MPs, battling for a seat on the Westminster Gravy Train, are largely seeing social media as just another channel through which to talk at, rather than with the public.

When discussing this stuff, it is obligatory that Barack Obama is referenced because countless party apparatchiks will have spent the 18 months since his victory as US President wondering how to replicate his social media mastery – and no wonder.

Obama’s digital campaign crushed rival John McCain’s as a 13 million-strong army of grassroots activists was mobilised (to varying degrees) and $500 million was raised.

The UK parties won’t be anywhere near as successful. Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg simply don’t have the charisma or appeal of Obama. Nor do they represent a historic turning point in the country’s history.

The majority of the British public has yet to warm to the idea of choosing their politicians in the same way they do their Friday night drinking spot or a new boxset of DVDs. According to research from PR outfit, Weber Shandwick, traditional media will be still the most influential source for shaping voting intentions.

I think they are probably right, but it’s not the fault of social media; rather, a failing on the part of the people using these new and powerful tools.

As any social media consultant worth their salt will tell you, two basic steps to success in this arena are (1) listening, and (2) then making sure to sound like a human being when you do speak. None of the parties are yet managing to do that.

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, on the other hand, is someone you would want to have a beer with – and it comes across in his Twitter feed. He has been well briefed on social media etiquette and manages to sound like a good bloke in his Tweets. He tells the world when he’s been at the garden centre with his wife – not everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly humanises him more than wearing a baseball cap back to front or talking about biscuits (or not) on Mumsnet.

Labour spin doctors will be rightly proud of Sarah Brown’s grasp of social media and her ability to engage, but there is a problem to be resolved before it’s time for backslaps all round: we can’t vote for her.

Our politicians have also shown themselves to be completely incapable of listening, which is a cardinal sin in new media terms. Digital Economy Bill, anyone? There was a huge online outpouring of angst against it and our elected representatives couldn’t have cared less. The #debill as it is known to the Tiwtterati threatens the provision of wi-fi in cafes and other public spaces because of new copyright laws. It could also – theoretically – see important sites like YouTube, Google and Wikileaks blocked.

So, are we to believe last month was last month, and now this month they are reformed and ready to listen?

It’s easy to be cynical about our politicians using social media – I am a journalist after all, and it is fun to take cheap shots at easy targets. This election is not going to be a digital democracy revolution, but the fact that the parties are using these tools now is a great thing and gives us cause for cautious optimism about the future.

Can you imagine what a beautiful day it will be when our elected representatives tap the hivemind when making policy and sound like you or me – not thought-policed politicians? How good would it be to have politicians adding value to the community, and answering the questions actually asked, rather than the ones their spin doctors have briefed them to answer (regardless of it being asked or not)? And imagine politicians admitting when they got it wrong.

Okay, that might be too much social media Kool Aid. Let’s just celebrate the baby steps they are taking and resolve to help politicians discover their true voice to help them understand why trust, truth, transparency, authenticity and responsiveness are highly prized in the social media world. It’s going to be a difficult fight, but a worthwhile one – who’s with me?

Murray Cox has been an online journalist since 1998 in both the UK and Australia. He has worked for the BBC, Australian Associated Press and Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service. More recently he has been working as a social media consultant and has launched a new company in Glasgow called DigitalMud, which helps businesses use social media as the starting point for positive organisational change.