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From Spin to Spam: promises and limits of Web 2.0 campaigning in Britain

Géraldine Castel
p. 215-237


Depuis l’avènement d’Internet comme média de masse, la question de son utilisation dans la sphère politique a suscité de nombreux débats au cours des dix dernières années, notamment lors de la campagne d’Howard Dean pour les primaires démocrates en 2004 aux Etats-Unis, ou plus récemment, lors de l’élection de Barack Obama à la présidence. Dans un contexte en évolution constante, il apparait néanmoins clairement qu’Internet n’est plus un simple accessoire de mode ou l’apanage d’une minorité ‘branchée’, mais un instrument incontournable de l’action politique, inscrit dans la durée, au delà des frontières nord-américaines, de la Corée du Sud au Mexique. Mais quels sont donc les outils générés par cette évolution technologique et comment les acteurs, mais aussi, les commentateurs de la vie politique britannique en font-ils usage ? Quels sont les enjeux de cette présence sur la toile, quelles en sont les promesses et les limites ? Et enfin, quel impact sur le cadre démocratique britannique lui-même ?
Ce sont ces différents points qui seront abordés grâce à une étude en contexte de différents vecteurs d’action politique en ligne.

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Internet, politique, parti, blog, Web 2.0
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1In February 2009, the launching of the Labourlist website was the opportunity for Labour strategists under the leadership of Peter Mandelson to gather some of the most influential bloggers of the moment for the latest in a series of meetings organised to discuss and elaborate on the party’s integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into the coming general election campaign.

2Only a few months later, in April 2009, the ‘Smeargate’ scandal involving Damian McBride, one of Gordon Brown’s closest advisors, caused his resignation as well as significant embarrassment for the Prime Minister over the former’s casual reference in a series of private e-mails to Derek Draper, the editor of Labourlist, to the idea of creating a loosely affiliated Labour blog called Red Rag, possibly containing slanderous statements pertaining to the private lives of senior Conservative figures.

3These two events, only a couple of months apart, illustrate both the attraction for the tremendous potential offered in term of communication of tools such as the internet, and the risks inherent in such practices for political parties.

4While in this field, the digital revolution heralded in the wake of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign might not have brought about the truly cataclysmic changes expected then, but Barack Obama’s 2008 victory has given new momentum to this interest for ICTs in general, and the internet more specifically, among parties’ decision-makers the world over, and Britain is no exception.

5Whether an efficient use of the internet can markedly alter the outcome of an election is still a matter for debate among observers of the political sphere. However, initiatives from both Labour and the Conservatives in the recent past seem to suggest that both parties believe it can. In this respect, an analysis of the various experiments undertaken with this relatively new medium by the two major British parties seems relevant in order to try and understand the role it can be made to play in the near future.

The Facts

6The 2000s have been a period of noticeable evolution regarding the tools made available to the large majority of web-users. So much so that a new phrase has been coined to describe the move from first-generation web technologies to more recent ones, or from ‘Web 1.0’ to ‘Web 2.0’.

7Technical progress, increasingly widespread broadband access as well as the emergence of an expanding class of web-literate citizens have contributed to the gradual development of less static, more dynamic instruments and contents, updated on a regular basis and offering a more interactive interface characterized by a less hierarchical, more flexible relationship between producers and users as illustrated by a clear diagram on a blog autorail by Frédéric Cozic 1. Representative of this trend are social networking sites such as Meetup, Facebook or Twitter, collaborative platforms or ‘wikis’ on the model of Wikipedia, or blogs.

8In practice, Web 2.0 applications have not comprehensively replaced their predecessors but have co-existed with them for the last decade. Such has been the case in politics too : all British parties have an official website2 as well as several secondary web sites3, individual or collective blogs4, and a presence on the most popular networks. All are combining traditional material with more innovative practices.

9The key focus is still very much on the conveyance of information from the party to its members, and more broadly, to web-users as a whole. In this perspective, the internet presents many advantages over the other mainstream media : most essentially, the transmission of the message whether on websites, by email or through chats for instance, is immediate and direct. It’s also as complete, detailed and complex as the disseminator of the information wants it to be. For Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider :

The tendency for political campaigns to be waged largely through ever shrinking sound bites has been demonstrated by several analyses (see, for example, Adatto 1990). The Web provides a forum within which campaigns can expand their practice of informing with an ever-increasing number of gigabytes5.

10This ‘ever-increasing number of gigabytes’ also makes it possible to accommodate a larger range of issues, from the crucial to the trivial in a more engaging framework through a blend of texts, images, audio and video documents.

11What Web 2.0 added was the opportunity for exchange between politicians and militants, between politicians and the general public, but also between citizens and professionals as well as between citizens themselves. For parties, new internet tools enable campaigning teams to become more proactive and to fit the message to the person targeted according to his or her needs and interests as defined through their own requests, after answering online questionnaires or simply thanks to the recording and processing of the various items on which they clicked while on the party’s site. Visitors to, for example, can sign up for emails, find events organised by the party in their area or ‘tell their friends’ about the information they found.

12Such interaction between users and parties is not limited by time or geographical constraints, and can trigger direct contact between different political players and stimulate involvement. Anyone can thus launch a campaign on the topic of their choice on the page entitled ‘Labourspace : Be the Change’ and meet party officials to discuss specific issues, such as health and disability with Ed Miliband, for instance6.

13The convergence of online tools and off-line action in this manner is in fact the most promising aspect of Web 2.0 politics. The success of the picnics and house parties organised through Meetup to debate major issues during the American presidential election attests to the relevance of such a synthesis. In Britain, it influenced David Cameron's approach when he started his ‘Cameron Direct’ tour on the following premise as explained on its webpage :

It’s a return to the old-style town hall meetings, where politicians stand up in front of a crowd and answer questions from local residents rather than national journalists.[...] There are no scripts or planted questions, and the events, which are taking place throughout Britain, are open to everyone who lives in the local area, no matter what their political persuasion. Cameron Direct gives David the chance to discover the local and national issues that people are concerned about. And it gives the people of Britain the chance to meet David and ask him about the issues that matter most to them7.

14Direct contact coupled with pertinent use of technologies: the agenda for the meetings is available online, as well as videos of the events themselves, live, but also accessible afterwards, and comments from web-users too. Such an initiative is aimed, in part, at answering the need for more straightforward, less formatted sources of information on the part of those who make the most of the new, alternative forms of transmission available on the net, widely regarded as more objective, even if this specific point is in itself debatable. For Virginia Gibbons:

[MPs] belong to a discourse in which politics is about being spoken for and looked after. That is why blogs have become a key source of information and analysis for people who prefer to trust their own judgement to dependence upon the spin, censorship and narrow agenda of the usual sources8.

15Hence a search for a more genuine form of dialogue between politicians and the public. While political action in Britain had remained for centuries the prerogative of an elite, it became by degrees in the 19th and 20th century a mass process involving ever larger numbers of citizens. Media fitted to this evolution such as the radio and television therefore materialized while interpersonal communication receded, intermediaries multiplied and filters blurred the message. Whether pristine, artless dialogue between citizens and their representatives was ever more than a myth is here not as relevant as the extensive rejection of what are perceived as the excesses of spin in the last decades in the minds of most bloggers and internet users in the political field. The Web is accordingly seen as a potential means of reversing this trend, either systematically as for sites such as Spinwatch9 or Guido Fawkes’s blog10 or more diffusely.

16Somewhat paradoxically, ICTs might then be a tool for making politics more spontaneous, more direct and ultimately more humane. Allowing viewers to take a peek behind the scene is the stated objective of the War Room Briefings on Conservatives.TV11. Whether it will indeed offer a more accurate, less calibrated vision of the party remains to be seen, but the success of the Lords of the Blogs12 application launched by the Hansard Society in 2008 seems to confirm the pertinence of such a perspective. For Andy Williamson, the director of its eDemocracy Programme:

The aim of the project was to provide access to what the House of Lords does, written as a commentary by peers themselves. We hoped it would be educational, we hoped too that it would allow a glimpse into the upper chamber in a way that helped the general public start to get what it does.
What we didn't expect was for the peers themselves to turn into the stars of the show. It's obvious really, but blogging isn't like writing for print. [...] Yet Lord Norton, a self-confessed ‘political anorak', has demonstrated a willingness to disclose, a good dose of humility and a genuine desire to engage people. These are all ingredients in an interesting and successful blog13.

17For the participants, this is an opportunity to engage in constructive debates with politicians involved in the democratic process on a daily basis and to be heard by them; for the Lords, the chance to reconnect their activities to their outcome in the real world. Contributors to the site are activists, but also members of the general public looking for an expression forum and feeling excluded by a certain process of professionalization of politics, as the following figures demonstrate :

The most commonly cited reasons for not feeling influential in decision-making point to a belief that politicians and the political system overlook the public’s views. The top two answers, ‘nobody listens to what I have to say’ (29%) and ‘decisions are made without talking to the people’ (20%) convey a strong feeling among the public that they are ignored by decision-makers. Other popularly cited reasons include ‘the system doesn’t allow for me to have an influence’ (19%) and ‘politicians are just out for themselves’ (17%).14

18This is consistent with visitors of politics-related platforms as a whole and with a recurring desire to return to a vision of politics more in keeping with its original etymological meaning.

19Yet the potential of the medium has been unevenly exploited by the two major British parties in the last decade, most notably in terms of reactivity and interactivity. Profiles on networking sites or blog entries, for instance, are updated at best intermittently and the willingness of the vast majority of politicians to participate in authentic dialogue has been variable despite assertions to the contrary, such as Gordon Brown’s truism that ‘Conversation, after all, should be a two-way process’ on the 10 Downing street website.15 Such a practice, in truth, remains the exception rather than the rule. Pages on Facebook are symptomatic of this tendency. The contents are rarely composed by politicians themselves and the comments from users are hardly ever answered. Interaction remains limited or superficial. The Conservatives’ European election manifesto, for example, was presented as ‘interactive’ in so far as it could be saved or shared and as it comprised a search engine for locating issues more easily, but involved no possibility for participation to its elaboration on the part of the readers.

20Moreover, whereas, as was mentioned previously, a greater flexibility between producers and users is one of the main characteristics of Web 2.0, British political parties seem unable or unwilling to relinquish control over the contents of their sites or blogs. The organisation remains the provider. Visitors can comment on what is on offer, take part in a discussion with senior politicians but always on the terms of the party. The ‘Ask the PM’ feature on Downing Street’s website illustrates this aspect. Youtube users post questions to Gordon Brown and the rest of the community vote for the most popular ones which are then addressed by the Prime Minister. This ranges from state pensions to cannabis, knife crime or the national debt16 and comprises mostly down-to-earth everyday issues emblematic of public concern and for this, should be welcomed. Yet interaction stops there and seems to be as far as party headquarters are ready to go. Similarly, volunteering is encouraged but under supervision only and the uploading of material is restricted.

21More generally, over a decade after the internet has become a quasi-routine tool for a majority of the British, its utilization by most parties has retained a predominantly timid character despite some propitious experiments. David Cameron’s profile on Facebook lacks imagination or anything that might hint at what stands behind the public figure, and this is no exception. This contrasts, for instance, with French Nicolas Sarkozy’s own page. While until May 2009, it displayed the same flaws as its British counterparts, a shift in contents and tone has become apparent : it now mentions his interest for jogging, his support for the French football team, his favourite movies or his impressions on Woody Allen’s visit to the Elysée. Nothing revolutionary and despite the ‘I’ present throughout the pages, one wonders about the real degree of involvement of the president, yet some attempt at fitting the message to the medium has been increasingly perceptible, which has been less in evidence in the British context.

22This does not mean that none of the projects launched by the major British parties has managed to tap into the potential of the internet in terms of effective political communication. Some of the initiatives we have already mentioned undoubtedly did, as well as others such as the E-petition application on the Downing Street site17 which provides petitioners with usually precise and no-frill answers to their inquiries, or Cameron’s live web-chat through the Guardian Politics blog in March 200818. Yet, the innovative nature of the tests conducted remains unevenly distributed, so much so that Nigel Jackson and Darren Lilleker prefer to use the phrase Web 1.5 to refer to the current state of affairs in this sector:

  • 19   Politiciansand Web 2.0: the Current Bandwagon or Changing the Mindset ?N. Jackson and D. Lilleker (...)

Parties appear to have recognised the limitations and weaknesses of Web 1.0 tools, but do not appear prepared or able to adopt Web 2.0. Rather, they have developed their own approach, Web 1.5, as a compromise solution. [...] Therefore, Web 1.5 includes an element of interactivity, but it also includes one-way monologue at the same time. Political parties have jumped on to the Web 2.0 bandwagon, but they are using both the brakes and the reins to steer the vehicle onto a route they feel more comfortable with19.


23The reasons for this reserve are manifold. First, the misfortune of Damian McBride highlights the paradoxical nature of an intrumentalisation of the Web for political purposes. While freedom of expression is one of the major advantages of this instrument, politicians must abide by a code of conduct designed for other, different media in another era. Whether this set of rules might still be relevant in the 21st century could be in itself a matter for debate. What seems obvious however in the light of recent events is that the fact this code doesn’t apply to the rest of web-users puts politicians and parties into an uncomfortable position.

24Moreover, as we have seen, attempting to communicate through the Web without taking into consideration its specificities and requirements is doomed to failure. However, more imaginative explorations can be the object of scathing attacks and communication staff are often trapped into reaching unsatisfactory compromises. This was the case, for instance, with the Cameron/Chameleon campaign launched by Labour for the 2006 local elections which was deemed simultaneously vapid by web-users and needlessly hostile by some traditional media. This further demonstrates the particular nature of the internet audience. Regular methods such as broadcasting parliamentary debates or speeches hardly generate any kind of interest in the general public and certainly not the degree of viral propagation yearned for in party headquarters. Yet more original initiatives are commonly railed at, as this comment on, self-described as ‘journalism, ideas and opinion for intelligent young Britain’, about one of John Prescott’s Facebook campaigns, illustrates :

His clunkily-titled Facebook campaign “No Ifs, No Buts - Pass On The Cut” was set up to get a grassroots movement clobbering the banks into passing on the interest rate cut. The group has 3,324 members, and a graphic that looks like it belongs on the noticeboard of a parish church opposing bus route changes, not on the page of a party trying to clamber into credibility20.

25In truth, some initiatives indeed evidence a confusion between the spontaneity allowed by the medium and a certain form of amateurism in the approach, which is viewed as acceptable for ordinary web-users but not for professionals; though instinctive defiance towards any whiff of propaganda might be even more significant in this respect. The limited success of Labourlist, for instance, attests to this, and coupled with the Red Rag scandal highlights the difficulty of the task for parties : conveying a specific message without raising that type of suspicion or reflex rejection so as to ‘catch the buzz’ and be picked up by the press or television without whose intervention internet communication remains a sideshow.

26Besides, such a conundrum is made even more problematic by the fact that internet is a medium which combines a necessity for spontaneity or even immediacy and the permanence of the outcome. Press, radio or television archives also made this possible in the past, but this tension has been aggravated by the use of the internet as it has called for greater interactivity and speed in the transmission of data, ease of access and an exponential storage capacity. Any mishap, any embarrassing moment, any hasty statement can dog a politician for the duration of his career and beyond as they can be seen on sites such as Youtube for as long as there are viewers to look at them. And no politician is immune to such a phenomenon as almost constant coverage of the most peripheral event makes such occurrences even more likely.

27Relinquishing control over the message itself can prove perilous too as offering a free expression forum might result in unintended consequences. Hence one of the most popular petitions, signed by over 72 000 people on the Downing Street site, was the one asking Gordon Brown to resign21. More generally, if answers to the question : ‘Can a party win an election thanks to the Web ?’ are, as was mentioned previously, composite, those to ‘Can a party lose an election because of the Web?’ are far more definite and affirmative. Not only, for instance, because releasing a candidate’s programme on his or her website might give his opponents the means of undermining his efforts in the field, or because the boundary between providing relevant information to voters through emails or Twitter and flooding them to saturation point can be delicate to determine. But mostly as regards issues pertaining to control over one’s image and also, undoubtedly, to individual and collective responsibility.

28It was probably no coincidence that websites more or less closely connected to Labour, such as Next Left22, the Fabian blog, or Labourlist, chose to adopt a code of conduct in the aftermath of the Smeargate debacle. But the matter is made even more complex and potentially risky to parties if they allow  input from outsiders through the uploading of material, comments to posts or linking to other sites on pages for which they have ultimate ethical and legal responsibility. Such a vacuum can be on occasion exploited by party staff to connect visitors to videos or articles of less than rigorous contents without taking responsability for any possible fallout, but as a rule, this type of approach is treated with the utmost care in party headquarters. The confidentiality offered by the internet, the possibility to alter and duplicate any original document, as well as the lack of concern from a large number of users for deontological matters make opening up party websites or individual blogs to external contributions a real minefield.

  • 23   Making a Difference : a Comparative View of the Role of the Internet in Elections Politics. p263- (...)

29Such pitfalls must be weighed against the cost of an efficient instrumentalisation of the internet for political purposes, all the more so as possible benefits might be less obvious in the British context than in the American one, as summarized in Making a Difference published in 200823. Major disparities include the size of the respective territories, the method for selecting candidates or the financing of campaigns. In that respect, regulations concerning campaign spending in the UK compel parties to make choices regarding the allocation of their budget and the internet has yet to become a financial priority.

  • 24   MPs Online : Connecting with Constituents. p11. A. Williamson. Hansard Society. 2009 www.hansards (...)

30Making full use of the capacities of the Web in terms of communication has become increasingly costly as the technologies available to parties became more elaborate, contrary to the widespread belief that internet tools are free, or at least involve very limited investment in comparison with television in particular. Investing large amounts of time is a minimum and explains why the blog format has been chosen by a minority of politicians in office. Only 11% of MPs have one and 17% a profile on Facebook24. Managing the flow of visitors to a specific website and complex databases, or moderating forums requires technical expertise which has to be paid for and parties have been reluctant to spend excessively in that sector, especially outside electoral periods. This appears clearly once one clicks beyond the frontpage and the few main features of their sites to discover that the rest is generally more static, less visually detailed and sophisticated.

31Substantial expenses in this aspect of party communication have been made on an occasional basis so far as the internet remains an extra, and yet not the core of official electoral strategies. The following figures help explain this phenomenon :

  • 25   Logging on or Switching off ?W. Lusoli and S.Ward IN Spinning the Web : Online Campaigning in the (...)

During the 2005 campaign, about 28% of British internet users went online to get information about the election, corresponding to about 15% of the population. While about 17% of British users visited the BBC online website, 9% reported visiting information portal websites (such as Yahoo! and Tiscali) for election-related information. Newspapers only attracted 4% of all users, while party sites were visited by about 3%. Other purveyors of online information, most notably candidates and lobby groups, but also blogs and tactical voting sites, were virtually ignored25.

32Since the last General Election, a keener interest for that type of communication from individual politicians, from the public and consequently from party headquarters, has been noticeable. In March 2009, Facebook for example, had 17.8 million registered users in the UK26, and thus represented a potential way of getting a message across to the general public which cannot be ignored. However, in 2008, 44% of all UK households still had no broadband internet access27 and concerns over a digital divide have been expressed. Clearly, the internet has not yet enabled parties to reach out to the majority of voters, to the non-negligible group of those who have no interest in politics, and still only precariously and incompletely to the precious minority of undecided voters who might tip the scales one way or another in a crucial ballot. British parties’ uneven appropriation of the Web as a tool for transmitting accurate messages to a more or less strictly defined audience could therefore be a consequence of the fact that the internet is not accessible to the whole British electorate nor to the part of it capable of making a major difference on election day.

33Issues pertaining to impact, cost, risks and context seem therefore relevant in order to try and understand the precautions taken by the parties in relation to the exploitation of the internet for political goals. To these must be added the fact that priorities in terms of spending on ICTs and expected results, such as data gathering on voters for instance, might not be those with the most visible outcome and yet have definitely been mobilizing staff and budget, although information on that type of activity does not always filter down.

34But  the notion that some of the functionalities offered by the internet might actually disturb the implementation of a communication strategy on the model of the last decades as well as introduce new complications could also be germane to the difficulties encountered by PR teams. Constantly-improving applications have made targeting the message to its recipient easier, yet at the same time, others make contradictions increasingly difficult to conceal to users. Features such as ‘Did I Say That?’ on the Guardian website, for instance, list the inconsistencies of personalities, among them Tony Blair or John Prescott28. Moreover, as was mentioned earlier, one of the main advantages of the internet is that it enables parties and their members to convey exhaustive contents, to provide detailed answers to precise requests, or to converse directly with the electorate, which means that strategic ambiguity is becoming unmanageable while the multiplication of information channels and means of expression for various persons or groups complicates the task of setting the agenda for the release of news deemed critical at a specific moment. Planting stories through the lobby system might be on the way out in favour of experimental Web 2.0 alternatives.

35What is striking is that, even if the internet has not altogether revolutionised the way campaigns are conducted, it has nonetheless modified electoral practices and political communication as a whole. Going back to a more controlled, monolithic, hierarchical form of communication, might prove arduous and reactive initiatives insufficient. A cultural evolution seems necessary to efficiently harness the internet and the new possibilities it offers for political gain. Careful and extensive consideration has been given to such issues in party headquarters for over a decade, and yet, statements like this one, from Peter Mandelson, Business secretary, former spin doctor of the Blair era and currently involved in trying to integrate ICTs into the next general election campaign, demonstrate that only the surface of what the internet is about and how it can alter politics has been scraped so far. In a speech to the bloggers, journalists and party officials present at the meeting he organised in February 2009, he said :

Instead of forcing our message through the old media you have to bring it alive with jokes, video clips and debate29.

36This reveals a propensity for taking advantage of the technical possibilities offered by the Web to make the message more attractive without really acknowledging the evolution brought by the same technologies regarding public expectations or the approach of web-users, which might account for the perplexity of Benedict Pringle, one of the bloggers invited:

  • 30   Labour List Bloggers Breakfast. B. Pringle IN Political Advertising. February 12 2009 http://poli (...)

A more informal format that allowed the congregation of bloggers and politicians to converse would have been far more useful and exciting.  What’s the point in gathering an element of the bloggersphere if you’re going to simply give them pastries and talk at them? It felt very broadcast and not very social30.

37If a pertinent use of the internet is not sufficient in ensuring a successful campaign and needs to be combined with communication through the traditional media, a ‘spin as usual’ course which would adopt such technologies for cosmetic reasons only could completely fail to take advantage of the major advances they spell for the present and the future of politics.

38For Web 2.0 is not about presentation, gadgets or turning party sites into amusement parks so as to lure the young or the unwary. Nor is it about faking more genuine communication through less sleek and apparently spontaneous broadcasts or feigned interactivity. It is not either about trying to trigger a connexion with some parts of the electorate by looking fashionably ‘wired’.  Web 2.0 encompasses a series of mechanisms which may provide both for the most puerile forms of entertainment and for potential democratic progress, or what Tim O’Reilly calls an ‘architecture of participation’. But for this participatory framework to be of any value, parties must play the game and play fair. What is the point of initiating dialogues if nothing comes out of them in the real, unvirtual world ? If ideas and opinions are shared but decision-making remains invariably in the same hands ? Those questions are worth asking as they hint to the fact that beyond technological feats, what made the internet such a popular instrument is that it seemed to offer antidote to the weaknesses of the British political system itself.

21st Century Technologies, Ageless Debates

39For the internet to have a truly democratic impact and for the strategies implemented by parties to find some echo in the public, understanding the motivations of those who turned to it for these answers is a necessary step. All the more so as a focus on technological progress and novelty can conceal the permanence of some of the issues raised by its use, issues related to the concept of democracy itself, to the respective roles of politicians and citizens in such a system and to the interaction between them.

40In the context of a substantial decrease in the number of activists in political organisations, and of a continuous erosion of voter turnout in the last decades, any tool capable of reviving the democratic debate and stimulating citizen involvement is welcome. In this respect, the internet has opened interesting perspectives, facilitating the access of laymen and women to the political sphere, and providing means of expression apart from, and in between elections. Yet these same features bring back to the forefront the debate over the choice operated by most Western societies between direct and representative democracy. Facebook campaigns, for instance, are symptomatic of such a trend. As the advent of a Web 2.0 presidency in the United States is announced, comments by pioneer Joe Trippi highlight the possible hazard of such an evolution:

  • 31   Obama Election Ushering In First Internet Presidency. M. Wagner IN Information Week. November 5 2 (...)

Barack Obama built the biggest network of supporters we've seen, using the Internet to do it. [...] I don't think there's any doubt that communication through YouTube and other social networks put him over the top. […] And it's only the beginning. That kind of networking will likely transform the White House. Congress will be put between a rock and a hard place, if millions of citizens sign up to help the president pass his agenda. That will be a power that no American president has had before. Congress' power will be taken over by the American people31.

41Whether legitimate democratic involvement or ochlocracy emerge from this type of practice remains to be seen but the latter hypothesis is all the more preoccupying as the representativity of the opinions expressed through the web is far from self-evident. Indeed, the anonymity it secures leads to positions often beyond the realm of political correctness and therefore liable to be more trustworthy than those expressed in public or through polls. Yet the extremes of reactions frequently displayed on blogs or forums do not necessarily reflect public opinion, and visibility should not be mistaken for representativity.

42Moreover, if everything can be said on the internet, one wonders if everything should be said and where the flimsy boundary between free expression and libel, slander or abusive contents stands. Threats to American blogger Kathy Sierra in 2007 gave way to ambivalent responses. While some defended the necessity for a blogging etiquette, others raised the spectre of censorship. Conversely, when online participation is cunningly oriented and instrumentalised by parties, as was the case in the 2004 and 2008 American presidential campaigns, when letter templates were provided to supporters, as well as lists of points to be hammered home on TV or radio shows, the progress in terms of democratic involvement can be debatable. Technical developments thus offer new prospects but also resuscitate older and fundamental considerations about politics and politicians themselves.

43The latter, as was mentioned earlier, find themselves in an awkward situation as, on the one hand, they don’t want to be trapped into an antiquated interpretation of their role, and just as importantly, to be seen as doing so,  and on the other, are wary of some of the trends the internet has encouraged.

44The notion of entertainment outlined in Peter Mandelson’s statement is one of those. Making politics more engaging may serve both pedagogical and electoral objectives and the internet has undoubtedly a part to play in that process. However, the extent to which this must be the role of the politician himself is debatable. Whatever the means available at various periods, seducing the electorate and making their message more palatable have always been major activities for candidates; however in between elections, most of the focus has been on their parliamentary and governmental attributions, which have become more difficult due to move towards permanent campaigning over recent decades. Yet a politician is not primarily a comedian or some sort of actor, nor a teacher either.  Politics is mostly work, not entertainment. And the more "fun" formats offered by the internet should not be about trying to disguise or sweeten a fact the electorate is certainly mature enough to understand if given the chance.

45Concerns over the role of politicians in the democratic process can also be raised in relation to the question of participation in the light of the greater degree of interactivity made possible by the Web. For the success of applications offering genuine dialogue between party officials and citizens to bring about a highly desirable reflexion in party headquarters over the nature of the relationship between senior members and the public demands greater transparency, more direct forms of communication and a rehumanisation of the link between represented and representatives. Far less so that politicians should turn into a didactic hotline or secretarial services. A lot of people would be interested in knowing what happens behind the scenes at such events as the G20 meetings for instance. But is it compatible with their obligations to expect Gordon Brown or Barack Obama to take a break in negotiations over climate change or bank regulations to update their blog or post comments on Twitter? What about web-users who are offended that an email to their councilor should not be immediately answered althoug they never made the effort to turn up for their "surgery "?

46If the internet provides tools for connecting with politicians, it does not provide the only tools, nor systematically the most efficient ones. And if filters have been established over the years between the public and their representatives in between elections, some reasons might be found beyond an alleged lack of concern for the plight of the people. Faced with demands expressed explicitly or tangentially by web-users, the challenge for parties and their members is both not to respond to popular aspirations but at the same time to lay down some limits in order to safeguard fundamental functions and the proper working of the democratic process.

47Similarly, the extension of the prerogatives of the fourth estate  to the internet presents interesting perspectives for democracy when the Web is used as an echo chamber for denouncing abuses such as the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, initially revealed in the press, but then extensively relayed online. Indeed, while Hazel Blears claims that political blogs are fueling a culture of cynicism about politics32, Brian McNair proposes a different vision :

  • 33   An Introduction to Political Communication. p60. B. McNair. Routledge. 2007

It has been argued, on the other hand, that in reporting objectively manifestly corrupt or unethical behaviour by the political class, which may be causing fragmentation and disunity amongst the establishment, the media are contributing to a wider popular belief in the self-rectifying properties of the system33.

48Sites such as enable citizens to ‘keep tabs’ on what their MPs are doing in parliament, the debates they took part in or how they voted on various issues34. But again, the case of Damian McBride conjures up the possibility of a more sinister, ‘little brother’ use of the internet in politics. The contents of the email he sent from his official Number 10 address to Derek Draper was indeed controversial, but whether this type of correspondence belongs to the public or to the private sphere is not as manifest as it might appear at first glance. Nor was the process through which it found its way into the public domain completely candid.

49Some compromise is therefore yet to be reached between the ‘gadgetisation’ of the internet for superficial marketing purposes and the servitude of office-holders to technology, which requires an awareness of the phenomenon in party headquarters but also a certain degree of maturity from the public. For Stephen Coleman, in the conclusion to a study of the British ‘blogosphere’:

  • 35   Political Blogs : Craze or Convention ? p29. R. Ferguson and M. Howell. Hansard Society. 2004 htt (...)

If Walter Cronkite’s famous sign-off, "That’s the way it is" was the dictum of the world of media-represented factual certainties, "That’s the way I am" is the dictum of a self-expressive culture where truth emerges in fragmented, subjective, incomplete and contestable ways. For democracies to operate efficiently, there must be means of aggregating the vast array of individual self-expressions into a coherent, albeit pluralistically-constructed, ‘public voice35.

50The failure in the context of the 2005 General election of the YourParty initiative which enabled participants to determine party policy through online voting as well as the comments to a similar undertaking via the mySociety charity36 tend to demonstrate that despite the disenchantment of voters with established parties, they still remain the main vehicle for political activism and citizen representation as well as the main channel for turning an aggregation of individual ideas into the collectively supported project mentioned by Coleman.


51Extension of the tabloid press or instrument of thorough reflexion, vector of freedom or manipulation mechanism, factor of extreme individualisation or of community revival, the internet is a neutral tool whose promises and dangers depend on the goals and practices of its users. Yet, providing tools for actions is not akin to them actually being used. A large majority of the British have access to a TV set and yet the ratings for political programmes have remained as a rule desperately low. Expecting the Web to revolutionise politics and popular involvement was thus obviously overambitious, especially in the light of the following fact :

  • 37   Two Cheers for Democracy: Involvement and Interest in British Politics since 1918. K. Jefferys. H (...)

Democratic politics have changed dramatically since 1832 through franchise extensions and the growth of the media but the proportion of citizens taking an active role in political life - beyond voting at elections - has rarely risen above 10%37.

52It is nonetheless opening promising perspectives, not as a substitute for democratic institutions but rather as a complement to them or a corrective device to some of their deficiencies. For some, its widespread adoption by the younger generation ensures its perenniality. However, figures for 2008 seem to demonstrate that the exponential progress of the internet in British households has reached a threshold :

  • 38   Internet Access 2008. p3

The last time adults were asked why they did not have an Internet connection was in 2006. Since then, while overall numbers are down, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of adults who stated they did not want the Internet, from 3 per cent in 2006 to 24 per cent in 200838.

53Whether some segments of the British population are developing antibodies to the internet bug might be a possibility in the coming years. For the allergic, alternatives are already being investigated and experiments with interactive television and mobile phones, for instance, are being conducted. For the time being, though, and in the build up to the next General election, the internet is still felt to be the major technological asset available to campaign teams. Tellingly, Google hosted events at both the Labour and the Conservative conferences in 2009 and those were widely attended. Why these parties might be interested in Google is pretty straightforward : Google is the owner of the most-used search engine in the world, of Youtube for video-sharing or Blogger, one of the major blog publishing systems available. Why should Google, or other top players in the sector for that matter, be interested in these parties? The question might give rise to interesting new debates on the issue in the future.

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Ask the PM


Cameron Direct

Conservative Blogs

Conservative website

Did I Say That ?


Go Fourth Campaign

Governing for the People by the People: eParty

Guido Fawkes

John Prescott Hits Web 2.0

Labour Home

Labour website

Live Web Chat with David Cameron

Lord of the Blogs

Meet the PM

Next Left

Resign Petition


They Work for You

War Room Briefing

Whizz-Kidz Campaign

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Géraldine Castel, « From Spin to Spam: promises and limits of Web 2.0 campaigning in Britain », Observatoire de la société britannique, 9 | 2010, 215-237.

Référence électronique

Géraldine Castel, « From Spin to Spam: promises and limits of Web 2.0 campaigning in Britain », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 9 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2011, consulté le 22 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1039

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Géraldine Castel

Maître de Conférences à l'Université de Grenoble 3

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