The real impact of the 'Internet Election'


Demos Associate Anthony Painter has written a nice and readable analysis of the Internet’s impact on last month’s UK General Election:

The paper breaks down into three main sections that investigate and record political parties’ use of digital ideas and tools in their campaign strategies, creativity and voter engagement.

Anthony also provides a short introduction and analysis of what the mainstream media heralded as the ‘Internet Election’ and I thought I’d unpick this to try to get to the bottom of what real impact the Internet, and social media in particular, had on the voters.

To begin with Anthony rightly suggests that the question the media should have been asking was ‘how did the internet influence voters, campaigners and the media”

In answering this he suggests three ways:

This election, according to the paper, was successful in achieving points 1 and 2 but failed to achieve the third point.

Broadly speaking I wouldn’t dispute that. But I would suggest that in terms of influencing voter behaviour the increased opportunities to access a wide range of political content online and in particular the ability to do so within a social community is much more powerful than Antony acknowledges.

For example, in support of this argument the paper draws on YouGov data commissioned by Orange (who published the report, and also are a client of ours) indicating the majority of election content online was consumed passively rather than actively. Voters were receiving content rather than creating or participating in conversations.

This finding isn’t massively surprising. We know that the 1:9:90 rule exists online, i.e. the majority (90%) of the online audience are passive receptors of content and conversations, compared to Critics (9%) and Creators (1%).

But this argument looks at the delivery and receipt of election content. It doesn’t take account of the credibility of that content.

I’d argue that what makes the crucial difference in terms of influencing voter behavior is the fact that source of political content and conversation is a friend or family member who you trust, not a media outlet or political party.

But don’t just take my word for it. Academic research shows that “personal experiences, conversations with trusted others all provide … alternatives to media guidance.”

Not only that but, “When these personal factors come into play, they often overpower decision criteria provided by news stories.”

So, yes. While it’s possible the traditional media drove the election campaign agenda and the Internet merely reported or amplified the wider campaign, the fact that social media and peer-to-peer networks acted as sources for campaign content may have had a much greater impact on influencing voter behaviour than Anthony’s report suggests.