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How the Internet Changed the Political Art of 'Spin'

05/08/2013 10:32 BST | Updated 03/10/2013 10:12 BST

I'm old enough to have a vague recollection as to how media and politics worked in the nineties. Whilst I never had an irrepressible, wonkish obsession with the dirty goings on of party politics (and I'm quite glad I didn't at such an impressionable age) I was always encouraged to take an interest. Local councillors and politicians were prevalent in my village and although my capricious, teenage self never caved into a specific party affiliation - interestingly there were all sorts in my family - from lefty academics to good old fashioned Tories, to pull-yer-bootstraps-up Thatcherites - I was fascinated from the sidelines as to how the process of 'spin' influenced voter behaviour during the era when I came of age and cast my first vote in the ballot box.

I mean, who can forget the King of the dark art of spin Peter Mandelson, or the Blarites' incessant use of pagers to ensure they were 'on-message' constantly? When exactly was the cross-over which meant politics became primarily an exercise in PR made, or was it always thus (just more obvious with the rise of telecommunications and the internet?) Certainly political parties have always tried to manipulate or 'persuade' the public into seeing the world from their perspective (for those lucky to live in a democracy - admittedly a relatively new concept in the great scheme of things) or, indeed, pandered to key concerns of the day held by the voting masses to get into government. And the cynical use of triangulation used to mix and match policies to 'insulate' them from criticism is something that's been firmly absorbed as part and parcel of the political game, meaning that marginal constituencies tend to get the most attention during election campaigns. However, with party loyalty on the wane and social media networks and a wider range of news sources to choose from, the practice of successfully spinning ideas to the public is fast becoming a precarious business.

Stunts that may have worked once upon a time (remember Tony Blair emerging with the tea in a bid to seem 'human'?) can drastically backfire these days. I mean who can forget 'Burgergate?' (although to be fair, George Osbourne did have a sense of humour about the online abuse he got for this.) However, the fact is that, like it or not, everyone in public life is exposed more than ever and those who'll succeed in this nebulous, consistently morphing digital landscape, will be those most willing to adapt.

As maverick Conservative MP Douglas Carswell highlights in his book, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, the growing influence of social networking sites could had back power to the people in a way not seen since the early days of universal suffrage. And, perhaps more importantly, whereas the entrenched, political system still dictates how we vote, with the two-and-a-half party system generally designed to keep the outsider out; the surge of 'people power' harnessed by technology means that this distinctly cosy arrangement could be forced to readjust. In a world where we can directly tweet politicians, asking them questions, seeing their real-time reactions, those with potentially dubious intentions can be called out and exposed, whilst those seen by the online community as authentic are likely to be trusted and win hearts and minds, to use that hackneyed phrase. Of course, industries such as business and commerce are certainly not insulated from the critical social media user, but it's evident that holding some sort of public office makes some people more accountable and therefore more vulnerable to online vitriol.

We also generally still rely so much on officialdom to convey ideas. From high priests to bureaucrats, history is littered with willing sages oh so keen to be the messengers. However, the days of being impeded by lack of access to information are long gone. The growing popularity of alternative sources of news, the ability to communicate with people internationally and understand their concerns and put a global context to the issues of the day, means that the middlemen are cut out. Of course, it must not be forgotten that there's always been a global pattern to change, think of the wave of revolutions in Europe in 1848, or how the Age of Enlightenment influenced Thomas Jefferson. Plus ca change, one may say, but the sheer speed at which new ideas can be disseminated through the internet has the ability to make the whole process faster.

Also, the strength of online communities has meant the balance of power has significantly shifted. Think of Mumsnet. Catered to by politicians keen to get a share of the female vote, the forum has demonstrated that strong networks can even end up rivalling lobby groups such as big businesses, with vested government interests. The digital space is open for occupation and ironically collectivism thrives on the individualism of those bold enough to make a move. Anyone who can team up with similarly-minded individuals and fight their corner is in with a chance - and the likelihood is, as with the free market, an idea that is not popular will quickly die and wilt; whilst those representing the interests of significant amount of people will blossom.

I'll leave you with the words of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey. His criticism of Twitter during the worst protests in his decade old rule, demonstrates the power of social media and its ability to spark fear in the hearts of authoritarian governments:

"There is now a menace which is called Twitter," Erdoğan said. "The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."