General elections, Facebook and the 'personal firewall'

Is there really a 1-in-3 chance of a general election in three months, as Charlie Beckett’s insiders claim? If so, webmasters in the fields of both news and government really should be spending some time over the summer, working up a contingency plan.

This is the first election in the ‘web era’ where a change of government is a serious possibility. I remember the changeover from Tories to Labour in 1997: websites were smaller and much less important. Frankly nobody was going to bat an eyelid if large chunks of ‘old regime’ content disappeared overnight – which, if I recall correctly, is precisely what happened. I’m sure there were ‘changeover plans’ for the ’01 and ’05 general elections, but I bet nobody put much effort into them.

In principle, of course, the right thing to do is ensure that all material remains available, but is marked as being from the previous government. In practice, that may be pretty tricky. I’ve worked in one major Whitehall department which couldn’t even do a ‘find and replace’ on its pages’ headers.

Charlie’s article muses on the likely impact of email and social networking in politics. We’ve talked about this a lot over the past couple of years, and there’s been plenty of experimentation, in terms of voter engagement and mobilisation. Now I’m wondering if Facebook might finally be a vehicle to make it happen.

It’s much less effort, and almost certainly less binding, to join a group on Facebook in support of a particular cause or party, or to register a candidate as your ‘friend’. But in doing so, you’d be inviting a stream of campaign messages, which (crucially) would sit alongside the updates from your ‘real’ mates. Inside the personal firewall, if you like, in a way that mass email just isn’t. Plus of course, all your contacts will see your new affiliation, spreading the word without any manual effort.

So well done to the LibDems for getting a big Facebook button on their site’s homepage; this may be a factor in them having twice as many members for their ‘Ealing Southall Liberal Democrat Campaign’ group as the ‘Ealing Southall Conservatives’. The Greens have a representation of a few dozen in their ‘Sarah Edwards for Ealing Southall’ group. But Labour? – nothing. And frankly, a diabolical constituency party site.

A word, though, for the Tories’ CampaignTogether site. A nice idea: launched early this year, or perhaps very late last year, its aim is to get the party grassroots to help out in any neighbouring by-election campaigns. But it was clearly conceived before Facebook’s emergence. Doesn’t Facebook do largely the same thing, only better?

Who knows – by the time the general election finally happens, Facebook may well have been superseded. But if I ran a political party’s web effort, and if I was drawing up a contingency plan tonight for an autumn 2007 general election, Facebook would feature heavily.

2 thoughts on “General elections, Facebook and the 'personal firewall'”

  1. “Webmasters.. should spend some time over the summer, working up a contingency plan.” You’re joking aren’t you? We’ll all be on holiday! Seriously, parliament and government is extremely exercised about archiving, as some of your recent posts have referenced – this adds more complexity to solving that problem.

  2. I would love to hear any suggestions from experts out there as to how they would quantify the influence of the internet on politics.
    Because you are right to ask what effect all this e-campaigning will have – and it’s very difficult to measure. In the States they can use fund-raising as a measure – but would they have got the cash via conventional methods anyway? you can see when a certain candidate loses and blame it on an embarrassing video on YouTube but that is very rare and who is to say that they were not a crap candidate and would have lost anyway?
    polis@lse.ac.uk

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