There’s an interesting little article at publictechnology.net about how the UK General Election hasn’t seen the impact of social networking on democratic participation some predicted. Instead it seems that television has been the big influence, and perhaps points to its continuing importance as a medium in an era that sees itself as being defined by the internet. Sure you could argue that it’s a visual thing more than a TV thing – the televised leader debates have awakened memories of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, where opinion on who won the debate was influenced by whether you accessed them through radio or television – but let’s not kid ourselves, television is still the main form of mass media and, when it gets round to actually having an important and significant impact, you can consider its reach to be in the millions, not the thousands. I genuinely thought the internet was going to have a major effect on the election, but although New Media is the golden child, it’s looking like Old Media can still come out swinging.
For all we’ve seen the growth in sites like Twitter and Facebook, they’re based around our social networks and as such are pretty fragmented – it’s probably easier to establish a Facebook group that gets Rage Against the Machine to Christmas Number One than it is to swing the election using, say, Youtube. And maybe in this case, the interactivity of social networking crashes into the usual barriers to political engagement – disillusionment, apathy, lack of passion; it’s also way easier to spend £1.49 to download a song and stick two fingers up at Simon Cowell than it is to become a campaigner for the local branch of whichever party you intend to vote for.
It’s also possible that we don’t have quite the right impetus for social networking to make a huge impact at the moment. Despite the polls implying that people tend to want to see a change in government, we don’t feel the need to take to the streets and hang politicians from lampposts. Maybe we’re broadly satisfied with the democratic process, while the anarchic nature of the internet will tend to have more of an impact in places that need a dose of, well, anarchy – take the use of LJ co-ordinated Flash Mobs protesting the government in Belarus, or the use of Twitter to help protect journalists reporting dissent. We don’t necessarily need to fight through a hundred voices arguing on the internet if we can trust mass media like TV to be reporting things like the leader debates accurately.
But, of course, we can’t always expect things to be covered fairly and without bias. While TV in the US is far more partisan than it is here, in the UK it’s the print media that’s the problem, and lo and behold, that’s where the main web-based ‘protest’ has been focussed. When Nick Clegg turned out to be the break-out star of the televised debates, the right-wing press came out fighting with an OTT smear campaign against him – only to be roundly satirised by the epic #nickcleggsfault movement on Twitter, making the whole situation a laughing stock and providing a long overdue comprehensive dissing of the biases of UK newspapers. Maybe we get the online revolution we need, not the one we expect.
Then again, there’s still best part of a week left before the election, and still time for a digital media upset. But at the moment it looks like TV’s got some of its mojo back.