U.S. President Barack Obama's use of the Web on his way to the White House in 2008 has inspired British political parties to ramp up their digital campaigns for a general election expected in May.
An unprecedented wave of initiatives -- from a new breed of digital campaigner to an army of online supporters, critics and satirists -- is prompting many observers to say this will be Britain's first 'Internet election'.
Twitter doesn't win elections, people win elections, says Matthew McGregor, of Blue State Digital Media, the firm that provided the technical backbone for Obama's digital campaign. But social media is a way of organizing people and I don't buy the argument that what worked for Obama won't work in Britain.
Officials at the main parties say a British election is very different to a U.S. presidential race. There's less freedom in fundraising, less money, and a shorter campaign, so the scale of their operations is far smaller.
The opposition Conservatives have nine full-time staff in their digital team, the ruling Labour party five and the Liberal Democrats three. By contrast, Obama had 100 at his base in Chicago and another 40 dotted around the battleground states.
SOCIAL NETWORKING ELECTION?
The Conservative digital team is spending about 20 percent of its time on Twitter, a short text-based message service, primarily to attract the attention of journalists, says the Conservatives' Head of Online Communities, Craig Elder.
Twitter's role in accelerating the news cycle is a major area of interest.
Last month's row over accusations that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had bullied his staff was an good illustration, with Twitter being used to strengthen Brown's defense.
When mainstream media carried a claim by the chief executive of the National Bullying Helpline that her charity had received calls from Brown's office, a Twitter-based crowd of fact-checkers quickly raised a series of conflicts of interest.
Opinions differ on Twitter's likely role in swaying the election outcome, but the prime minister's wife is in no doubt about its drawing power.
Sarah Brown has built up a Twitter following of 1.2 million people, which BBC political editor Nick Robinson said makes her one of the most influential figures in British politics.
See Sarah Brown's blog for Reuters, here: http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2010/03/24/sarah-brown-on-ada-lovelace-day/
Both Labour and the Conservatives have adopted the U.S. model of providing briefings for key bloggers, who write widely read online commentaries that can influence voters.
We want to make them part of the campaign. Some of our projects and policies at HQ come directly from them and it makes them feel a part of it, says Mark Hanson, the Labour Party's digital strategist.
Labour creates interactive graphics on campaign issues that bloggers can use on their Web sites. The Conservatives allow members to create rapid online fundraising campaigns via myconservatives.com, and to embed adverts within their blogs.
The battle has spread to social networking site Facebook, which has 21 million active users in Britain -- almost as many people as voted in the last general election.
Social media, and Facebook especially, have served as a fantastic tool for recruiting new supporters and getting them out on the campaign trail, says Jeremy Hunt, shadow culture secretary and Conservative spokesman on digital campaigning.
PR consultancy Diffusion says the Conservatives have the heaviest official presence with a total of 154,000 friends, fans or members for their lawmakers, candidates and official party site. Labour with 62,000 is in third place behind the Liberal Democrats on 68,000.
The parties are making use of the network's ability to carry highly targeted advertising campaigns. Last October, when the Conservatives launched myconservatives.com -- their own social network -- they bought ads only on pages of Facebook members who had declared themselves supporters.
But despite the hype about social networking, the humble email and a new form of call center may have more impact.
Blue State's McGregor believes the way social media are used in activating the activists will be the untold story of this election. One in five Obama voters was on an email distribution list that helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
UK parties should take note and invest much of their election funding on email, he suggests.
All three main parties are following the Obama model of creating a database of potential supporters and, by carefully building up details on their views and interests, targeting them with more personal messages than is possible with other media.
Labour stresses the importance of telephone contact.
The biggest application of what we learnt from Obama is the Virtual Phone Bank, says Hanson. The bank allows activists to make calls from home and feed back into a central database.
A University of Essex study this month found 58 percent of voters polled had received direct contact from a Conservative party source in the past six months against 46 percent for the Liberal Democrats and 35 percent for Labour.
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