LONDON: British politicians are using the full array of online weapons to target voters in knife-edge elections – but the technology could also backfire on hapless candidates, experts warn.
With polls indicating a tight race between the governing Labour Party and the main opposition Conservatives ahead of the May 6 general election, both groups now hope tools such as Facebook or Twitter can boost their campaign.
Inspired by Barack Obama’s ground-breaking use of the web in his successful bid to become US president, prime minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron are deploying an arsenal of cutting-edge technology.
It is the first vote in Britain where such tools have had a significant role – many of them did not even exist at the last general election in 2005.
But observers warn candidates are vulnerable to attack by critics who, using computer editing packages, can hijack their work – as in a series of spoof versions of campaign posters which have already appeared.
A recent poster of Cameron, which showed him vowing to cut Britain’s huge deficit quickly, transformed into a picture of the politician holding up a small cat and saying: “Vote Conservative. Or I’ll kill this kitten”.
Stephen Coleman, an expert on the internet’s role in political campaigning, said: “The risk is that people will be cutting up their speeches, making viral videos that go around.”
Despite the obvious perils, both Labour and the Conservatives have thrown themselves headfirst into the new digital world.
The parties have studied how Obama’s victory was secured in part thanks to his ability to build a vast online coalition of supporters, with sites such as my.barackobama.com.
The online tool energised grassroots supporters, transforming web users across the United States into an army of political campaigners.
Both the Conservatives and Labour have websites for supporters to stay in touch and organise campaigns: Labour has <membersnet> and their opponents run <myconservatives.com>.
They have also developed iPhone applications. The Conservatives have a swingometer, a graphic device showing movements of votes from one party to another.
Labour has set up a web-based phone bank to allow supporters to ring round potential voters from the comfort of their homes.
The Conservatives, however, still view relatively old-fashioned email as one of the most important online weapons.
“Email enables a campaign to introduce social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to users who, otherwise, may not have connected with us on those platforms,” Conservative online spokesman Jeremy Hunt told AFP.
Both parties claim to be ahead in the online war.
Hunt claimed the Conservatives have “significantly more Facebook friends, Twitter followers and YouTube views than the Labour Party”, while Labour sources say they have made more of a success of fostering a dedicated online community.
But while the parties publicly voiced enthusiasm for the potential of the web, Coleman expressed doubts about whether politicians would really commit to internet campaigning given the dangers.
Parties in Britain will be loath to get involved to the same degree their US counterparts did two years ago, Leeds university professor of political communication Dr Robin Brown said, for fear that the “campaign could be taken away from them”.
To stress the importance of current technology in modern elections, Brown spent part of Wednesday’s first full day of campaigning motoring through questions sent in via the internet, in a live video stream on the Labour website.
“The internet is changing our world, it is transforming our world, it is potentially giving people power that they never had before,” he explained at Microsoft’s London customer centre.
“It is changing the way people communicate with each other about important issues.”
But while the British media are whipping themselves into frenzy about how the web will affect the election, many observers feel it will be just an extra weapon in their arsenal rather than a poll winner in its own right. – AFP