Scottish election: Following the online campaign trail

By Doug Kennedy
BBC Scotland news website

image captionParties are seeking to harness Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Audioboo

The story of 2010's UK general election saw online and social media fail to make a significant impact on the hustings or at the polls.

Campaign posters were launched by e-mail, photoshopped and resent by activists, analysis was tweeted and retweeted, yet the election itself, in media terms, hinged on three set-piece television debates.

This time around in Scotland, parties are pushing their messages further and harder using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Audioboo and any other tool which could increase exposure.

Broadcasting is in the hands of anyone with a smartphone or keyboard - and this is election broadercasting - but how are the parties handling it?

BBC political correspondent Tim Reid notes: "Twitter and Facebook are a much more direct way for would-be politicians to get to voters, particularly the younger ones.

"The main parties are getting the hang of the new world - developing social media election strategies and encouraging every candidate to get involved."

These main parties have well established websites which can be tailored for the election period.

Increasing share

But beyond the traditional website or blog, social media has the attraction of reach. A Facebook post can be liked and shared, while a tweet could end up retweeted to thousands, possibly millions.

The SNP's frustration over coverage at the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 saw it launch its own newspaper as part of the campaign.

Now the chase for extra coverage by all parties means promoting good online material and using the right Twitter hashtags, the most widespread being #sp11.

Labour covers its bases with Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts, driven by its online coverage.

John Park, Scottish Labour's election co-ordinator, said the party had used Twitter to highlight "broken promises" from the SNP and had published its manifesto online.

"Any online campaigning that we do will be to maximise our activity on the ground as there is no substitute for face-to-face campaigning," he added. "We believe this will be a doorstep election."

The Conservatives are on Twitter, party leader Annabel Goldie can be found on Facebook and the Tories have a YouTube account.

David McLetchie, Tory campaign manager, said traditional media no longer dictated the pace of news but there was still a balance to be struck.

Mr McLetchie said: "All of the political parties have been gradually adopting new media techniques, both to organise media strategy and as campaign tools.

"We will be using new media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to broadcast our key messages during the campaign, but will always remember that there is no substitute for face-to-face campaigning."

Virtual doorstep

The Nationalists have been tweeting video and audio content and have also set up an election site using off-the-peg platform NationBuilder, a new web service for organising political campaigns, with a section for uploading snippets from the election.

SNP campaign director Angus Robertson said the website was fully integrated with Facebook and Twitter.

He added: "For us, this means that instead of having to take time out to visit the SNP's site for information or only being able to reach voters on a doorstep, more people than ever are signing up and engaging with the issues that matter."

image captionKeeping up with the cut and thrust of the campaign has never been easier

The party had also launched a smartphone app to co-ordinate campaigning by activists.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats may hope that the television debates win out in the end as they seek to recreate some of Nick Clegg's impact on the Westminster poll.

Again the Lib Dems can be found on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Andrew Reeves, the party's director of campaigns, said they had encouraged candidates to get on Twitter and a great deal had.

He said: "Tavish Scott and George Lyon are going to be tweeting throughout the campaign.

"We have an active Facebook page - and there is one for Tavish Scott. Later this week, we are going to set up and publicise a Facebook page promoting our campaign against a single, centralised police force for Scotland."

Twitter and YouTube also feature in the arsenal of the Scottish Greens.

James Mackenzie, convenor of the Greens' elections and campaigns committee, said: "During this campaign we'll be making intensive use of Twitter and Facebook in particular, for conversations about the key issues of the campaign, listening to the public and answering their questions.

"Social media doesn't work where parties just talk about what they think matters - it's all about the engagement."

Pros and cons

All these outlets will of course be dissected and argued over in the blogosphere, which features a healthy batch of Scottish political blogs, and relayed for further scrutiny by repostings and retweetings.

There is a mixed picture, with parties keen to have a presence yet with not all the outlets being regularly updated.

And in Scotland television debates and online media webchats with the leaders are more common fare than in the UK election.

The broadercasting approach allows parties to bypass the filter of traditional media, and editors, and get a raw, dog whistle message out there.

But the problem for the parties is precisely that rawness. The messages that come out have to be authentic - social media are so much part of everyday life, from teenagers to silver surfers, that anything forced will simply feel false.

Craig McGill, of Scottish social media strategy firm Contently Managed, said the online campaign would fall into three camps over the election - those who are comfortable using social media like the Greens' Patrick Harvie; those who will need sidekicks to use blogs and post tweets; and those who do nothing, terrified of becoming the next Stuart MacLennan - a Westminster candidate whose loose Twitter comments saw him sacked.

Mr McGill added: "Sadly, the one thing that is all too obvious even at this early stage is that very few of the candidates will use it for full engagement with the electorate or to show off their actual personalities and will instead just broadcast and rebroadcast what they are told to from their central offices.

"This won't be the true or proper 'social media election', though it won't stop some dubbing it that."

For the online campaign to ignite will either require a spark of viral or multimedia genius, a genuine story breaking through Twitter or the internet, or some sort of campaigning catastrophe.

Of course social media provides the voter with the ability to comment on and scrutinise every facet of the messages, issues and coverage.

And therein lies the pitfall for parties, extra coverage and extra exposure could leave the door open for extra embarrassment. All meted out in 140 characters.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.