In My Opinion: Shaun Milne: Why social media will make a difference this election

THE General Election might not be won online. But every political party whatever their colour has social media to thank for helping engage the public in this historic campaign.

Sure, the three live leaders’ debates on the TV and their offshoots provided the grandstanding platforms to hook people on.

But it is the pre, post and live online ‘buzz’ via Facebook Groups, Tweets and Re-Tweets, viral videos and online conversations that have wooed once disinterested voters into play.

They speak a language most can understand, 140 characters at a time. They can ‘like’ what is said or make them their favourites. They can engage.

According to analysts, Echo Research, the online world is playing a “game changing role in the 2010 election” with 50 per cent of people turning to the web for their election fix.

Significantly, 42 per cent of them are 18-24 year olds: first-time voters.

Facebook’s Democracy UK page by today had 153,079 active users, larger than any UK political party and a hotbed for political comment and polls.

When ITV screened the first Leader’s debate, 184,396 Tweets were sent by 36,483 people – an average of five per person.

When the audience fell expectedly for the second debate on digital TV, tracker site Tweetminster showed 142,795 related Tweets were still sent.

Users could then log onto one of the many new sites that have sprung up, like 10DowningTweets for instant poll results.

Both Sky.com and ITV.com used Facebook Live Stream to allow viewers to comment during the debates. Some 67,000 did just that.

The BBC claimed that for the third and final debate, some 350,000 streamed it onto their computers – in addition to the peak 9.1 million watching it on TV.

More than 19,000 were also said to have engaged using the CoverItLive web forum.

‘Auntie’ also states that some 850,000 page views have so far been recorded across their Live Campaign Coverage pages in the UK.

Since the sixth of last month, when the polling date was announced, famecount.com has tracked API traffic via Facebook Connect to gauge popularity of the parties.

The Lib Dems have seen the greatest surge from 10,727 fans to 79,507. Leader Nick Clegg jumped from 4,531 fans to 55,748 by today, May 3.

The Conservatives doubled their Facebook fan base, and have an edge in terms of online strategy having bought up hundreds of key Adwords on Google relating to Labour activities.

That means anyone typing in Labour-related phrases or names in the search engine may be greeted by Tory-inspired negative Google Ads instead.

That’s one way of doing it. The other is to hijack comment pages on articles, websites or online debates.

Just ask stv.tv how much moderating they have had to do over the past week as the Nationalists ramp up their conversation.

Click onto labour.org.uk and you can follow Gordon Brown on Flickr, watch election broadcasts via YouTube, like the party or comment on Facebook, follow their Twitterfall, sign up for e-newsletters, donate, volunteer or join the party.

The others all do the same. The SNP even gives you a countdown clock to the polls opening by day, hour, minute and second.

But as slick as the campaigns are, none can legislate for individual idiocy.

Stewart MacLennan was first to succumb to ‘Twitter Suicide’ and forced to stand-down as Labour’s candidate for Moray after a series of ill-judged Tweets about political rivals.

Last Tuesday, the Tory’s North Ayrshire and Arran candidate, Philip Lardner, was suspended by his party over homophobic remarks on his election website.

In their case twits outdid Tweets and were leapt upon by the press and media.

And it is here we see a change, as newspapers face their first social media election.

Take the News of the World, not just breaking stories and carrying exclusives with its party of choice, but tracking opinion polls, displaying interactive election maps, video, Facebook, Tweets, images, blogs – the who ‘kit and caboodle’.

The others all have their Election 2010 tabs on site too in various permutations.

Expect more online revelations in the coming days before polling, more debate, analysis and increased chatter.

With no more TV debates, it will be the quickest way to update the masses and engage. Social media has made a difference to this campaign.

And who now would bet against the actual result being broken online first too?

Shaun Milne is a former Trinity Mirror newspaper executive and currently consulting managing editor of Deadline Press & Picture Agency in Edinburgh. He is a co-host of social media podcast, Quiet News Day, founder of the Scottish Social Media Club and publisher of the long-running journalism and new media blog, Milne Media.