Was it Google wot won it?

The media has been never slow to trumpet its influence on elections. “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT,” was the famous headline splashed across The Sun on 10 April 1992, taking credit for a remarkable swing in the polls following its election-day front page: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

Click here to read ‘Britain’s net leaders rated’

However, with newspaper circulations in a seemingly irreversible decline and television broadcasters bound by strict rules on impartiality, the traditional media’s influence on elections is waning.


The internet is the new political battleground. Parties, parliamentarians and potential candidates are all clamouring to “connect with voters” through their own blogs or websites. “[French president] Nicolas Sarkozy had his own internet channel with 12 million views. He was convinced that was why he won the election,” says Iain Dale, Conservative political commentator, The Daily Telegraph columnist and noted blogger.

But it isn’t only the politicians who’ve spotted an opportunity: internet goliaths such as Google and YouTube (now owned by Google) have created sites dedicated to covering elections across the globe, from last year’s Australian contest (www.google.com.au /election2007) to the current race for the White House (www.youtube.com /youchoose). YouTube’s YouChoose ’08 site provides a video-led homepage for each of the Democrat and Republican candidates, and collates video clips of the politicians’ thoughts on the big issues, such as the economy and the war in Iraq. Barack Obama’s YouTube channel alone had racked up almost 12 million views at the time of writing; what would the BBC give for audience figures such as that for its political coverage?

But while traditional broadcasters live under strict regulations that require them to be impartial in their coverage of news events, ensure that all parties are treated fairly during an election and forbid them from discussing or analysing election issues once the polls have opened, sites such as YouTube remain entirely unregulated. Could these sites influence the hundreds of thousands of people who visit every day to vote one way or the other? The internet played merely a fledgling role in the UK’s 2005 General Election, with a post-election poll by MORI revealing only 7% of people had used the internet to access information on candidates or parties. But by the time Britain next goes to the polls, presumably in 2009, could it actually be Google wot won it?


The online race for the White House

There’s no doubting the enthusiasm with which US candidates have embraced the internet. TechPresident.com provides a marvellous insight into how well the Presidential candidates’ online campaigns are going, monitoring their performance on different sites, including MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. At the time of writing, Obama was leaving his Democrat opponents in the dust with more than half a million “friends” on Facebook, and similarly outstripping his rivals on YouTube.

For the Republicans, Ron Paul was streets ahead, with more than 46,000 channel subscribers on YouTube and almost 20,000 “friends” on Digg.com (www.digg.com/elections), where users cast their online vote for the candidate of their choice. Paul’s online success lies in his campaign being more Web 2.0 than any of the others, according to election watchers. “He has recognised that his supporters know more about what to do online than he or his campaign and he has encouraged them to build a campaign for him,” says Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident.com. Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, an organisation monitoring campaign finance, agrees: “Paul’s fundraising has been staggering considering his low performance in the primaries. As far as we know, he was the top Republican fundraiser in the last three months of 2007.”

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