Will the Internet Swing This Election? Or Has the Press Just Lost It?
PR Disasters among the Press
For various reasons I've outlined before, it's been the most rabidly partisan election for the British press for many years. 80% of Fleet Street have come out in favour of the ruling Conservatives or their coalition. So crassly personal has the tabloid coverage become that the head of public relations (no less) for Britain's top selling newspaper was on Twitter tweeting out a picture with some visual resemblance of Labour leader Ed Miliband to a Nepalese earthquake victim.
But even the upmarket broadsheets have run a virulent campaign against Labour.
The Times has tarnished further its claim to be the paper of record with a mendacious front page claiming that a Labour victory would result in £1000 extra in taxes per family. Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph, recently accused by its former chief political correspondent of committing 'fraud' on its readership, has gone the full McCarthy by promoting a piece claiming Ed Miliband is a communist.
Most of the mainstream press 'talking points' have emanated directly from 'lines to take' issued by the Conservative Campaign HQ. With limits imposed by British law on campaign spending, these partisan hit jobs are the equivalent to millions of pounds in free advertising.
Now for the Backlash
Despite the Conservative's dominance (and near supremacy given BBC co-dependence on print journalism) the media air war doesn't seem to have changed any minds.
The incumbents should have had their final late surge or what the Australian Conservative campaign strategist Lynton Crosby calls 'crossover'. Yet, with the exception of the SNP surge in Scotland, the polls have been flat-lined now for many months. Fleet Street's Mili-bombardment has failed to shift the public mood.
Perversely, the press's negative coverage of Miliband could be rebounding on its authors. The British famously love an 'underdog' and the televised debates have seen a positive shift in Miliband's favourability ratings.
It was bound to happen. It would take an acrobatic feat for the Labour leader to limbo dance under the low expectations of him generated by a hostile press.
Though some disagree about how uniquely partisan the press is, even the old school journalists, from former tabloid editor Piers Morgan to Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell, admit that the crucial difference this time is the rise of social media.
What does this actually mean? Will armies of keyboard jockeys park their laptops outside the television stations and take radio presenters hostage?
Twitter, Facebook, blogs and chat forums are just peer to peer publishing platforms. But compared to the mainstream press, they can perform an immediate crowd-sourced rebuttal unit. Online there are thousands of potential voluntary fact checkers, photographers, spin-meisters, satirists, pundits and witnesses.
In the last week alone I've seen them perform three crucial functions in holding our heavily monopolised media corporations to account.
Fact Checking and Due Diligence
The week started with a front page splash in the Telegraph of 5000 small business owners who claimed the Conservative Party policies were the only choice.
But within minutes, geeks had accessed the pdf with the signatories, and found the document had been authored by Conservative Campaign head office. Then, just as had been done with the 100 top business leaders who had endorsed David Cameron two weeks before, massed ranks of researchers began to fisk the list of names.
By the end of the day, Twitter links(collated by blogger Alex Andreou) had proved that dozens of the names were duplicates, or not from business owners, and had been solicited (possibly against data protection laws) by the Conservative Party website. The Telegraph was forced to pull the pdf and correct its many errors - something you'd think most respectable papers would do BEFORE committing to a front page splash.
Hidden among the names was that a woman who would appear, three days later, as an undecided voter on BBC One's election Question Time, challenging Ed Miliband harshly about his economic credentials.
Further online research revealed that Catherine Shuttleworth, head of Savvy Media, had not only signed the letter as signatory 3882, but also had previously endorsed a conservative politician who had helped found her company.
The next day an anonymous online contributor also revealed that a Financial Times endorsement of Cameron and the Coalition - which took Ed Miliband to task for being too "preoccupied by inequality" - was written by Jonathan Ford, pictured below as a member of Oxford University's hyper-elite Bullingdon club with David Cameron and his rival for the leadership Boris Johnson.
Rarely have the press had to suffer the indignity of the same kind of scrutiny and transparency they expect from others.
Compare and Contrast: Exposing Media Interests
The main function of social media, therefore, has been in reaction to media coverage. It's given a voice, that has perhaps long been there, to the vast majority who don't read the press, or feel television coverage is problematic. Yet it's more focused than that.
Five years ago, during the last election, I can recall little talk of media bias during the election campaign. This time around, there seems to be talk of little else.
The research has yet to be done to confirm it, but my impression is that - thanks to the phone hacking scandal and subsequent revelations - one most commonly mentioned names, apart from the party leaders, is Rupert Murdoch.
One of the most salient examples of media interests being exposed by the world wide web is the different tactical takes of Murdoch's Sun newspaper as it tries to stop Ed Miliband getting to Number 10.
In Scotland this means supporting the SNP who are doing substantial damage to the Labour Party's prospects of forming a majority government. South of the border this means scare mongering about Scottish control of Westminster.
Though, in any sense of good faith political endorsements, these two stands are poles apart, they are entirely consistent with News Corp's business interests. Murdoch has reportedly told his journalists to 'get Miliband' because he has promised to look at the company's potentially uncompetitive market share of media.
But when tweeted out and shared on social media, the contradiction was so apparent, even the French press reported on the double-take.
To be fair to News UK, this duplicity was soon copied by the Telegraph.
What used to be called in imperial days 'Divide and Rule' seems to be more important than a United Kingdom to both the non-domiciled Barclay brothers as New York based Rupert Murdoch.
Social Support against Fleet Street Trolling
However, perhaps one of the most affecting (and effective) uses of social media was the #Milifandom craze of teenagers expressing their support for Ed Miliband.
'Abby' - the effusive 17-year-old who helped promote the craze in the early days - soon became subject to press attention. She, like Miliband and most the Labour Party, had criticised Murdoch's intervention in negative coverage, only to find herself targeted by two journalists from the Sunwho had somehow managed to out her real identity, and doorstepped her family and her 70 year old grandmother.
One of the reporters involved said he found Abby's real name through the electoral register, which immediately raised several queries as she was too young to vote. When I encountered Abby on Saturday night she was tearful and fearful, thanks to ill informed speculation that she could be legally liable or even sent to prison for her tweets criticising Rupert Murdoch.
Abby herself has stated that she never revealed her real name or location, and the Mirror journalists only called days after the Sun had tracked her down. Given her stance, it's unlike the best-selling tabloid was going to report Abby's critique of its proprietor Rupert Murdoch, or give her story a particularly glowing review. The door stepping of her family therefore comes with overtones of intimidation. Legal questions remain about how the newspaper obtained her real identity.
High-profile female on social media attract a disproportionate amount of adverse comment. But Abby's story of tabloid hounding soon went viral, and she received the pro bono support of a senior lawyer and a call from Ed Miliband himself, thanking her for her support.
A happy ending you might think. Social media heroine fells media mogul.
But not quite. As I write, Sun on Sunday columnist and former Conservative MP Louise Mensch has promised to write a blog exposing the 17 year old's flaws to the general public. This is another PR disaster for the Fleet Street to my mind, judging from the general reaction online. But it's yet to be seen whether this high level intervention will deter a young girl from commenting on politics in the future.
Though social media can help frame a debate outside of the vested interests of the large corporations that dominate the media, there's no guarantee that all the information revealed by individuals online can't be used by unscrupulous investigators to expose, intimidate and silence free speech.
Voice mails and emails were technical innovations just like Twitter and Facebook, and recent trials and arrests have shown us how they can be misused.
The Ground War Looms
Yet all these sorties and shoot outs in the air war will only make this the proper first 'social media' election if they are reflected in the votes cast this coming Thursday.
It's the ground war, the getting out of the vote, which will determine the outcome of the general election now.
There is some sign that social media has played a role in that too. The comedian Russell Brand, who is followed by 10 million people on Twitter, and has a much watched news channel on YouTube, The Trews, was the broadcasting sensation of this election as he dropped his well-rehearsed opposition to endorse Ed Miliband as Prime Minster.
"It's gotta be Labour," he said in a video released on Monday lunchtime. (Though he endorsed the Green candidate in Brighton and suggested voters in Scotland should form a different view).
Brand's reach is phenomenal and Miliband was the only leader of a major political party to give him an interview. Though David Cameron, the Daily Mail and the Sun branded the Labour leader a 'joke' for talking to the comedian-cum-activist, the first half of the interview, broadcast last week, has already been viewed half a million times.
Within ten hours the surprise endorsement had been viewed a quarter of a million times.
Brand only backed Miliband because of his acceptance of 'power from below' and activism. But the endorsement will come too late for many non-voters. Registration to vote closed two weeks ago.
However thanks to an online facility (suggest by Labour's Tom Watson when he was minister) the ability to register has never been easier. And there was a massive spike in registrations, 500,000 alone in the last few days, mainly of those under 30 who are most likely to vote against the Coalition partners.
So if Thursday's vote has any surprises it could be down to this factor of the ground game - a factor that would have passed by most the polling companies and their samples based on previous elections. Certainly, most experts say that Labour has the best 'ground game' so far, with far more 'voter contacts' than most of the other parties, even in Scotland.
If this turns into more Labour votes (and I make no predictions) then the real online masterstroke of this election would be something that David Axelrod, who is working with the Miliband campaign team, promoted during the Obama campaign in 2008.
Axelrod's underlying strategy has always been this. Register more voters. Then engage them in campaigns to register yet more and get out the vote. In the 2008 US Presidential campaign, the strategy of youth engagement social media played a vital part.
If this is the case, then all the air wars between press and social media would have turned out to be a massive diversion from the digital insurgency of youth registration combined with GOTV.
**UPDATE** Within minutes of tweeting out this article the website Election Prediction, which uses academic research into Twitter and news media analysis, confirmed there had been a noticeable shift in positive references to Labour in the last few days suggesting a possible 'last minute swing'.
Whether this translates into an change of voting from the polls, we'll have to let the voters tell us on Thursday. Don't you just love the unpredictable nature of democracy.