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Election 2010: it was the web wot won it

InternetThis year's General Election will be the first in which the web and social media play a big part: but can blogs and tweets materially affect the make up of the next Parliament?

In 2001 the web was but a minor player in the general election. By 2005, social media was a twinkle in the eyes of Messrs Zuckerberg and Stone (Facebook and Twitter founders, respectively). But in the aftermath of last year's MPs' expenses scandal, Twitter and Facebook matter to even the most technophobic politician: when more than half the electorate have Facebook accounts, you ignore the digital mob at your peril.

According to a Lewis PR survey, more than three quarters of voters would vote online if they could, 55.8 percent visit political websites (and admit as much).

But how will social media affect this year's election? For one, unscrupulous parties get a free hit at the opposition. The rules governing what can and cannot be said in official party flyers are strict, but there's nothing to stop a politician encouraging a citizen to say whatever they like. (See also: the 'National' Bullying Helpline.)

Fortunately, political parties are famous for their scruple.

According to Evening Standard hack Paul Waugh, politicians can no longer control the agenda. Waugh sees his 4,000 followers as extra 'eyes and ears on the ground', feeding him tidbits of information. No longer can MPs rely on the staged photo opportunity making the front page - whatever they say and do, to whoever, can be reported. And quickly.

How do politicians feel about this?

Tory MP Jeremy Hunt welcomes the change, saying that his relationship with constituents is "fundamentally changed". Voters are better informed on both the issues, and his actions. For an opposition MP, this is an opportunity, says Hunt: "In 1997, 2001 and 2005, Labour got its literature right. Digital media is the next big hurdle."

So the web cannot win you an election, but, according to Salesforce.com's Dan Burton: "poor social media could lose it". And Burton should know: his company was behind the change.gov campaign run on behalf of a certain Mr B Obama.

Remind me: what's he up to these days?

Follow Matt Egan at Twitter.com/MattJEgan

See also: Twitter, shower gel and the art of terrible PR

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