As the U.K. electorate digests the nation's first televised electoral debates in the run-up to this week's vote, the Liberal Democrat Party's approach to social media has demonstrated how entwined new and traditional media have become in political electioneering.
Though all of the major parties have built social media presences, particularly on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the Lib Dems appear at this point to have been most responsive in terms of their approach to and use of social media.
The Labour and Conservative Parties have promoted policies and views and pushed messaging through social channels. However, the Lib Dems are using these tools in a unique way by reacting to and adopting supporters' behavior on Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms, rather than attempting purely to guide it.
The most prominent example of this is the party's use of the "I agree with Nick" catchphrase, coined by users in reaction to comments made by Labour Party leader Gordon Brown during the first televised debate. The following day, the #iagreewithnick hashtag was all over Twitter, and users were even posting videos to YouTube around the same theme.
In response, the Lib Dem Party itself jumped on the bandwagon, incorporating the hashtag into tweets on its official account, and even adopting "I agree with nick" artwork as its avatar imagery on both Facebook and Twitter. Two weeks on, "I agree with Nick" t-shirts are readily available online, alongside ties, badges, and shirts for dogs. Taking the idea further, the party also bought search ads around the phrase, driving traffic to the official Lib Dems site.
An unofficial supporters' group on Facebook titled, "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!" currently has over 160,000 members - over twice the membership of the party's official presence on the social network.
"[This activity] has come from outside formal campaign structures," commented Mark Pack, head of digital at Mandate Communications and co-editor of independent Web site the Lib Dem Voice. "What the party has got right is to let these flourish rather than try to control or direct them," he said.
Yesterday, for example, members of an unofficial Facebook group of Lib Dem supporters orchestrated a flashmob in London's Trafalgar Square. Party representatives were present, and promptly posted images to the party's Flickr account, drawing attention to them via posts on its official Twitter account.
Alongside that supporter-influenced activity, the party also launched a digital campaign sniping at the period of political dominance enjoyed by the Conservative and Labour parties in recent decades. For that campaign, a fictional party called the "Labservatives Party" was created, supported by a Web site outlining the fact that the U.K. electorate rarely looks beyond the two in its voting considerations. The site was published alongside related YouTube content, and a Twitter account in the name of Gorvid Camerown - a play on the names of the Conservative and Labour Party leaders, David Cameron and Gordon Brown.
Considering Clegg and the Lib Dem Party's underdog status going into the election race, it's unsurprising the party seems the most readily embracing of grassroots-inspired ideas. It has less to lose in protecting its "brand," after all. Having said that, the party has also made the most progress in the past couple of weeks, with its leader Clegg emerging as a surprise favorite among U.K. opinion polls.
What's more, their activity in the social space appears to have paid off according to social media currencies. The party led both its major rivals in terms of "likes" on Facebook on Friday, and Nick Clegg's own Twitter account had more followers than the official party accounts of both Labour and the Conservatives.
On the flipside, the Labour party has found itself on the negative end of election-related hashtags on Twitter. Following an incident last week in which Gordon Brown described a voter as "bigoted," the #bigotgate tag emerged as a worldwide trending topic on the social network.
The U.K. election takes place on May 6.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.