In the UK, Facebook gets political

Facebook has launched Democracy UK, a page that will carry the latest campaign information and aggregate opinion and debate from different political parties. The page is now accessible to more than 23 million Facebook users in the country.


With the UK general election approaching, Facebook, the biggest social-networking website in the world, launched a new page this week that aims to feature the latest campaign information and aggregate opinion and debate from different political parties, leaders, local candidates and ordinary Britons.

The page, Democracy UK, is now accessible to more than 23 million Facebook users in the country, almost the same number of people who voted in the last British general election in 2005. Richard Allan, a former Liberal Democrat MP and current Facebook Director of Policy in Europe, is behind the project.

"The main aim of the page is to provide a platform for debate for our users. We have created some interactive features to help users navigate the political landscape and to provide a snapshot of how people are feeling on key issues in the run-up to the election," Allan said.

While Allan represented the Liberal Democrats in Parliament from 1997 to 2005, he insists the new site is politically neutral. "In keeping with Facebook’s overall approach, the site will be non-partisan and will feature content from all the parties. The main aim is to get people interested and engaged in the issues that matter to them."

According to Allan, "Facebook has set up a dedicated team to manage and oversee the site, ensuring that content is fresh, relevant and compelling throughout the election period."

Five days after the page was launched, it had more than 5,000 fans who can now share their views and opinions on the general elections.

Taz Rasaul, a fan of the group, said she became a member because "I like learning different political perspectives and opinions, I like the discussion threads in the group."

A potentially powerful political tool

Facebook, the world’s most visited website, with more than 316 million users, is a powerful tool   particularly when it comes to politics. According to company statistics, the average user is ready to spend more than 55 minutes a day browsing the site, sharing photos and videos, but most importantly, opinions and ideas. 

Facebook, which played a major role in the 2008 US presidential election, is seeking to do the same in Great Britain. In the run-up to his 2008 election victory, Barack Obama swept campaign records with his spectacular wired political campaign that turned into a template for election campaigns across the world.

One of the reasons for the Obama campaign’s success is the fact that the US presidential campaign season lasts for about 21 months. Starting with the primaries, the political debate turns into a media marathon until Election Day.

A lot has changed on the British political landscape since the 2005 general elections. Today, Britain has the second-largest number of Facebook users in the world, behind only the United States. While 94 million of the 300 million-strong US population use Facebook, 23 million of the UK’s 60 million population have Facebook accounts, according to company figures. Of the 23 million UK users, around 86% are eligible to vote.

Where are all the Facebook fans?

The 2010 elections mark the first time British voters and politicians will be seizing the power of the Internet. In these general elections, political parties are expected to use Facebook as a better and cheaper way to reach out to voters. With the personalised advertising system created by the site, users will receive targeted advertising from the different campaigns. The challenge will be to successfully use its database to relay messages and build a support base.

With only months to go before the June 3 deadline to hold elections, British political parties have been slow to use online platforms and specifically Facebook.

According to Bart Cammaerts of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science: "The main reason for this is the electoral system. The British constituency requires work done on the ground by local candidates and campaigning by knocking on peoples’ doors has proved to be very efficient. 

"Campaigns want to address the floating voters who would normally get their political news from other media. Newspapers and TV channels have a better reputation in the UK than in other countries."

So far, only two of the three main candidates use Facebook. Conservative candidate David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg each have their own Facebook pages. 

But even if these two candidates have created their personal pages, followers haven’t exactly flocked to them en masse. Cameron has 18,000 fans while Clegg has 4,000. That’s a far cry from Obama’s 7 million-odd Facebook fans. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi both have around 200,000 fans each.

Can Facebook "friends" influence an election?

Current prime minister and Labour candidate Gordon Brown has not yet used the social networking site, and his party’s page has only around 7,000 fans.

According to a report published by Diffusion, a communications agency in London: "Conservatives have embraced Facebook as a potential campaigning tool more enthusiastically than candidates from rival political parties. As we head into a general election, the size of the Conservative party's presence on Facebook gives it a potentially huge advantage. With the average Facebook user having around 120 friends, even small differences in the size of the starting base can become quickly amplified and impact on the effectiveness of campaigns."

It remains to be seen however, if voter choices can be influenced by Facebook friends, and if so, to what extent.

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