Twitter: saving democracy from the newspapers

It's_The_Sun_Wot_Won_ItIt was allegedly “The Sun wot won it” in 1992, after the Tories pulled off a victory the day after the tabloid ran a front page proclaiming: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”.  (Although I faintly recall from my degree studies that more than half of The Sun readers surveyed after that infamous headline thought the newspaper supported Labour.)

Twitter: saving democracy from the newspapers

The newspapers’ influence over elections has always been debatable, but what’s indisputable is that they’ve lost all control over this one. Not a single newspaper has thrown its weight behind the Liberal Democrats or Nick Clegg since his strong showing in last week’s leadership debate, but the party has seen an enormous swing in support.

The Liberal Democrats have dragged themselves level with the Conservatives and ahead of Labour in several polls, and the newspaper editors are incandescent. People are using their own minds, instead of doing as they’re told. Something has to be done.

Which is why today the newspaper editors have unleashed the attack dogs. The Sun ­– which has infamously flipped from Labour to Tory in the election ­– is splashing with the headline “Clegg on his face”, pointing to a row over Lib Dem donations and his alleged U-turn on the war in Afghanistan. Meanhwile, the traditional Tory press is also mired in the dirt. The Daily Telegraph has delved back into its MPs’ expenses files to dredge up a spurious story about donations being made directly to Nick Clegg’s bank account, while the ever rational Daily Mail front page screams “Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain”, in reference to a comment he made about Britain’s “misplaced sense of superiority” since the Second World War. Desperate stuff indeed.

It’s a last, frantic attempt by the newspapers to assert what’s left of their authority over the British electorate, but I’m convinced it won’t work. Today, services such as Twitter hold far more sway over the public than a front-page splash in the tabloids. Twitter lights up every time BBC’s Question Time is on, with the show often becoming a trending topic, despite the fact it’s obviously got nothing to do with the vast majority of the world.

Likewise, last week’s Twitter debate was met with thousands of running commentaries, reactions and verdicts from countless people across the country. It was literally impossible to keep up with the stream of comments carrying the #leadersdebate hashtag – they were coming so thick and fast.

What was clear, however, was that the groundswell of Twitter opinion thought Nick Clegg  had “won” the debate. (Unlike the rather questionable straw poll released by the Murdoch-backed Sky, which was almost unique in declaring Cameron an instant winner). And that Twitter verdict has been reflected in almost all of the opinion polls conducted over the past week.

I’m not suggesting the wisdom of the Twitter masses is influencing the majority of the electorate. I’m fairly sure my mum thinks a hashtag is a Class B drug. But it’s undoubtedly engaging millions of young and thirtysomething voters – the demographic that has traditionally shied away from the ballot box. I wouldn’t mind betting that the turnout at this General Election will be far higher than  any in recent memory as a result.

The balance of power in our democracy is shifting from the newspapers to the online electorate, and the editors are terrified. And so they should be.

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