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Technology vs policy: Election smackdown!

Twitterized panel says voters will put policy first

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Technology or policy - which will be more influential come this year’s General Election Campaign?

According to the great and the good, meeting this week under the auspices of Delib - an organisation dedicated to using the internet to more effectively involve people in governance - it’s a no-brainer. Policy will win it every time.

On Monday, a panel hosted by Danny Alexander MP met in the House of Commons to debate the proposition "Technology not policy, will win the 2010 election". The event took place before a live audience, with live reporting of the contributions as they happened via the inevitable Twitter. Bravely (or foolishly), the organisers also allowed questions and comments to be taken from the same unmoderated Twitter feed.

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones kicked off the debate with the view that "technology would be hugely important and completely irrelevant at the same time". He continued by observing that there was a tension between social and mainstream media and that he felt the main role of social and electronic media would be to amplify messages and gaffes in real time.

Kerry McCarthy MP gave a Labour perspective, which boiled down to a simple statement that policy will be what matters in the election, not technology: the latter is merely the medium for communication. However, she felt that social media did have a role when it came to mobilising around specific issues.

Venture capitalist and sometime BBC Dragon Julie Meyer provided a counter-balance with the view that social media offered the possibility for issues to emerge "bottom up", in contrast to the more usual "top down" approach favoured by traditional politics. They might provide a means by which the entrepreneurial voice could make itself heard in Britrish politics.

Political correspondent Bruce Anderson provided the sobering thought that almost all election campaigning was a waste of time, and that perhaps the only campaign that had had any effect in recent years was the 1992 election. Even Obama’s victory, he suggested, was predictable and not the new media triumph it has been heralded as in some quarters. (The $100 million raised online by Obama’s team was spent on old-school TV adverts – which is perhaps a more realistic indicator of what Obama’s campaign team believed would work.)

Lastly, Conservative Party head of new media Rishi Saha gave the Tory view, suggesting that one already visible effect of technology was that parties now produced 10 to 15 pieces of party content a day, rather than the 10 to 15 pieces of campaign material a year as in previous eras. He also felt the main use of social media would be to energise and mobilise the existing party faithful.

Debate was then thrown open to the floor, Twitter and speakers. Various pearls of wisdom were tossed out but speakers questioned whether anyone would be listening. Fears were expressed that the use of social media merely swaps a small elite for a much larger one.

Otherwise, the most significant additions appeared to come from Rishi Saha, who suggested that "this is the election, as 2004 was in US, where we'll define the rules. No one can predict exactly what will happen this time": and Julie Miller, who opined that "the unexpected can always happen".

At base, though, the main thing the panellists appeared to agree on is that social media will generate a lot of noise – but no one can be sure who will be listening or whether the totality of the froth on offer will, in the end make any difference at all on the ground. As Bruce Anderson put it: "It's not about tech, it's about this - which party leader would you rather let look after your kids?"

A vote was taken. In the light of the preceding debate, the audience decided rather predictably that "Policy, not technology, has it by a mile", before departing en masse for the Westminster Arms – no doubt to continue the debate there. ®

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