The digital world: A new general election battleground

This election promises to be different. It has a new battleground: The digital world.

Politicians know they have to knock on digital doors as well as real ones in order to reach voters, make their pitch, raise money, get volunteers, and win votes.

Likes, followers, retweets, and favourites make up a new currency of digital support which sits alongside party membership and audience applause as indications of party political support and affiliation. Social media platforms like Twitter are now essential to the art of winning political power.

Twitter isn’t only for politicians, of course. It is also a place where ordinary people are finding their own political voices. Each major moment of the campaign, the gaffes, controversies, clashes, and announcements, will provoke groundswells of digital reaction.

The Irish Examiner has teamed up with the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos to bring you the digital moments, triumphs, and failures of the campaign. Each day, we will show you the politicians who are the loudest, the most hated, and most successful on Twitter, the messages and images that caused digital groundswells, and the battleground constituencies where Twitter will matter most.

There is one thing all this political activity on Twitter has in common: it is all being done in huge quantities, and covering it means more than just reading lots of tweets. Underneath all the stats and graphs we bring you is the silent rumble of technology.

The team at Demos, comprising political researchers and computer scientists from the University of Sussex, builds and uses technology capable of collecting, handling, and understanding the enormous amount of political activity on social media.

We use algorithms to automatically recognise differences in tweets, detecting whether they “boo” or “cheer” a politician, and distinguishing between the major issues they raise. This is called machine learning. While it is not an exact science — the algorithms sometimes get it wrong — it is a new and important one: The science of social media.

Listening to Twitter is not like a poll, of course. Only about a third of Irish adults are on it, most will be relatively young, and a small number of these will do a lot of the talking.

While a poll shows what a representative, but usually broadly disinterested, slice of society thinks, listening to Twitter shows the opposite: An unrepresentative but vocal and engaged minority. This is another kind of window into political life.

We will also grapple with the question of what all of this activity means for democracy, the challenges it puts on politicians, the new opportunities it offers for people to get involved with politics, and whether it allows genuine democratic debate and exchange.

This is a new political frontier for all of us who take part. Whatever happens next, politics won’t feel quite as familiar or as predictable over the next three weeks.

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