Social networking has exploded in the last few years. Brendan Hughes considers its impact on the Assembly election
On the doorsteps, suited and booted, leaflets clenched under arms and avid supporters in tow – the well-worn image of the traditional constituency campaign.
But in the four years since our last Assembly election, a powerful new battleground has rapidly emerged.
Many Senedd candidates have stepped off the streets and onto the internet in a bid to engage with voters – but can online campaigns win elections?
A new study suggests political candidates can indeed win campaigns if they use the internet and social networking.
The research found that 83.75% of Welsh candidates using social media in last May’s general election campaign finished in top three in every constituency.
And a further study released last week claimed social website Facebook could decide the fate of up to 20 marginal seats in today’s Assembly vote.
Dr Toby James, a politics lecturer at Swansea University, says social networking is now seen by parties as “an essential part of modern-day election campaigning”.
“Politicians and campaigners have put a lot of time and resources into social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter in recent years,” he said.
“They are wise to do so because they are increasingly part of voters’ everyday lives. There has been some evidence that they have been successful in mobilising support especially amongst the young.”
The growth of the internet has spread like an epidemic.
YouTube did not exist six years ago, but the website is now an undisputed global media juggernaut, rivalling the BBC and the Murdoch empire.
Likewise, Facebook started life in a college dorm in 2004 and now has 600 million users.
And Twitter has an estimated 200 million users, who generate 65 million tweets every day.
Politicians in Wales have been slow to join this social phenomenon, but its impact on politics has been instantly visible.
Twitter and Facebook are largely credited for beginning the “I agree with Nick” Clegg-mania of 2010’s general election, as well as nurturing the largest vote turnout in a decade.
But the power of social media in politics is still a volatile force, with numerous cases of internet interactions coming back to haunt this year’s Assembly hopefuls.
Cardiff Central Conservative candidate Matt Smith was reprimanded by his party last week for comparing the left-wing Respect party with paedophiles in a Facebook conversation.
Torfaen BNP candidate Susan Harwood was widely criticised for displaying highly offensive material that advocated violence against members of a Muslim organisation on her Facebook page.
And Joe Lock, a Labour proposal for Ynys Môn, was punished by the party after he posted a string of highly offensive comments on Facebook describing Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as a “f****** ****”.
Whether social networking does more harm then good is still debated by some sceptics.
The outcome of the Assembly vote today will act as a barometer for many candidates still just dipping their toes in this vast social sea.
Assembly election candidate for Cardiff North Jonathan Morgan was introduced to social networking four years ago when he set up a Facebook account.
Mr Morgan says some younger voters on the doors have recognised him for his use of Twitter rather than other outlets of communication.
He also says his online presence has stimulated media interest on many occasions without needing to send out press releases.
But the Conservative candidate is sceptical as to whether web-savvy politics is enough to win elections.
“I think it’s had an impact on the campaign trail, but I don’t know whether internet campaigning in the UK has taken off as much as other places, such as America,” he says.
“If you look at the American presidential race, social networking was highly influential in the campaign. I don’t think we see that here.
“We see the use of social networking but I don’t think it has the same resonance.”
But Mr Morgan maintains online communication is a tool of the future, helping public representatives engage younger voters with Welsh politics.
“There is a huge disconnect with the younger voters. I know people in their 30s and below who do feel this, and Twitter can be used to help get them involved.
“All Assembly members ought to be using it.”
Rhys Gregory, a final year management and business student at Aberystwyth University has spent the last 18 months studying the impact of social networking on election performance.
His study compared the online behaviours of 12 Westminster candidates in Welsh constituencies with those of the average web surfer.
The 21-year-old, from Cardiff, says politicians’ use of the internet has already evolved since between the Assembly campaign and last May’s Westminster election.
“You can already see there are different changes in how some people are using social media,” he says.
“Some people are improving over what they did last year, such as using more videos. I think a good few people have set up their own independent blogs and are videoing themselves.”
But the study showed many avenues of improvement for prospective politicians. Most candidates surveyed did not use web tools to search for real-time information about their constituencies.
Mr Gregory said politicians need to use social media as a platform to engage with constituents rather than coldly pumping out information.
He says, “I strongly feel it is about people. There’s a wealth of information out there and it is about candidates appearing normal. It is about them not just being that face around election time. It is about them being human, and I think social media allows them to do that.”
Dr James agrees that social networking requires a more personal approach.
He says, “Social network campaigning has been shown to be more successful when politicians actually interact with citizens. Rather than just using it as a marketing tool, politicians and campaigners should react and reply to citizens’ comments and questions if they want to win votes.”
Mr Gregory’s study quotes Jeff Bezos, the CEO of online store Amazon. The businessman inadvertently sums up the impact – and potential threat – to politicians delving into this rapidly advancing technology.
Mr Bezo said: “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.”
What do you think? Do politicians use social media well? What good or bad examples have you seen? Let us know your views in the comments below