Although quite correct in highlighting the fact that its role as a game changer has been over-hyped, Roy Greenslade’s withering assessment of the role of social media in this year’s election is wrong in its assertion that it has no influence.
Like many commentators he provides a straight comparison between mainstream and social media, mistaking direct reach as the sole barometer of influence (a quick tally of Sarah Brown’s followers on Twitter and the circulation of the Evening Standard provides an obvious illustration of how even this measure doesn’t always work in the favour of many newspapers).
Social media is not a direct challenge to mainstream media and perhaps part of the problem lies in the name. Social media is primarily a means of communication – it makes as much, if not more, sense to compare a tweet to a letter as a newspaper.
The reason it is influential in this election is the fact it has reduced the role of two gatekeepers – mainstream media and polling companies. Not only can politicians easily communicate more directly with the electorate but, perhaps more importantly, the electorate can easily communicate more directly with them.
Greenslade claims the mainstream media sets the agenda but then goes on to state that “David Cameron believes in internet power because he has shown enormous enthusiasm for the web [and] put considerable effort into [his] YouTube offerings”. However many people view the video, is this not a sign that the Internet has influenced the agenda for no less than the next possible Prime Minister?
The media’s role as a gatekeeper has changed too. Whereas once an editor picked a handful of letters to illustrate public reaction, now people can comment directly on a story on a newspaper’s site. This may highlight the fact that, in most cases, mainstream media is still setting the agenda but the comments below the article also represent social media in action.
All those comments, tweets and blogs also provide a wealth of data to analyse too.
No longer is YouGov or ComRes in sole control of determining the views of the public based on a questionnaire of 1,000 people. As the recent ‘Ask the Chancellors’ on Channel 4 illustrated, tools like Twitter offer the public an instant way in which to offer their opinion and anyone can harness all the data that subsequently becomes available.
Social media won’t change the result of this election but it has already changed the way in which we communicate with politicians. Perhaps more significantly though, it has fundamentally changed the way in which we gauge public opinion.