It’s the first time that a General Election in the UK has seen a televised leaders’ debate, and the unforeseen result has unsettled the political establishment by providing Nick Clegg with a visibility which previously evaded him. The resulting boost for the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls seems to have sustained itself, and everyone is preparing for a hung parliament. The two big parties are running scared, the hidden establishment are laying in plans to maintain the stability of the pound. The media pundits are enjoying their own bewilderment, outdoing themselves with speculation on what a hung parliament would mean. The last time the media were thrown into this kind of tizz was the crash of 2008. These are the kind of events that Derrida, speaking of the ways we think about the future, called ‘unforeseen’, as opposed to ‘expectable’, because it’s only the unforeseen that brings about change—until then, everything remains the same. This certainly seems like a huge moment of change, if it materialises on May 6th.
But why did this turn of events take everyone so much by surprise? After all, as Anthony Barnett over on Open Democracy rightly comments: ‘It wasn’t the TV debate that propelled Clegg to where he is currently. It was a public looking for a means to deliver an already strongly felt opinion: that the old parties are mendacious and permissive defenders of a rotten status quo.’ In other words, the debate was just the clincher.
Another question. This is also the first time an election in the UK has really encountered Web 2.0, and the intrusion of blogging, interactive amusement, social networking, twitter and user-generated content, including videos. How much difference is this making?
Everything on the web is intermixed, of course, and the videos listed below are found on a variety of sites, including political blogs and a useful aggregator site, as well as YouTube itself. I’m omitting most of those from official sources, or replays of incidents from new reports, not that they’re unimportant but what interests me is alternative viewpoints. There are just one or two early signs of the mood identified by Barnett:
- General Election 2010 (Satire) Leaders Debate (15 Dec 2009)
- Politics Voting HELP!!!! General Election 2010 (2 Jan 2010)
These are both nice examples of two of main subgenres of internet video to have developed in the last few years. The first is the political work of a professional music video animator, the second is a personal video blog.
Notice the viewing figures helpfully supplied by YouTube: 13,309 for the former, 2,240 for the latter (as of 25 April at 10.42am). Not a lot. This goes up to the tens of thousands for new videos once the campaign gets under way:
- a satirical Labservative Manifesto gets 43K
- the animated version of the real Labour Manifesto gets 78K+
- Eddie Izzard does a little better with his Labour Party video, Brilliant Britain, with 83K, and
- Cameron losing the plot in a Gay Times interview gets 86K+.
The last started to get around the moment it appeared on 24th March, otherwise diffusion by tweets and posts generally shoots straight up after the first debate, which itself gets a YouTube viewing figure of 218K. Facebook shares for most items are in the mid-hundreds, except for the Gay Times video, around 2K, and Eddie Izzard, 2.7K+. Can figures at this level make a difference?
Worryingly, the lists also reveal that a speech in the European Parliament a year ago by the right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, The devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government, has been viewed an enormous 2,724,643 times. This is quite frightening, a prime example of virulent dissemination over an extended period. There is no way of measuring whether this is opinion-forming or only symptomatic; Brown’s huge unpopularity has been well known for a long time, but the Party fudged attempts to replace him and is now paying the price.
What seems to be going on here is a kind of swarming behaviour, in which people are using the internet as a novel branch of the public commons where they can share a range of attitudes not always articulated in the mainstream—and be seen to be doing so. Evidently this takes different forms, including the long slow simmering which evades mainstream attention, and the more obviously viral form which quickly reaches boiling point and begins bubbling over. With Twitter this can happen very fast, like suddenly last August, when the lunatic right in the USA were attacking Obama’s health care plans and Twitter was briefly brought down by the massive number of posts under the tag #welovetheNHS, by Brits defending the NHS after outrageous comments by a Tory MP visiting Washington.
Since politicians and the media are not unaware that people are enormously zealous of the NHS, the only unforeseen element here corresponded to the novelty value of the form of protest, which the mainstream press reported briefly with slightly fearful amazement, but the mobile internet is now making this kind of political manifestation expectable, only like volcanos you can’t predict when. What the incident demonstrates is the web’s capacity to lock into a popular sentiment, and jump it from minority interest to mass attention, although it’s impossible to say where the transition occurs, what minority and mass mean in this context. In the wider world, the mobilising efficacy of mobile internet communication has been demonstrated several times over, in Burma, Iran, China and elsewhere, in breaking news of political repression and mobilising both local and global solidarity. In the case of Spain after the Madrid rail bombings of 11 March 2004, text messaging was used to summon mass anti-government protests which changed the result of the general election three days later.
That was a state of exception, another example of the unforeseen which brings about change. The situation in Britain is not so dramatic (and one hopes nothing will make it so). Here, in the otherwise ordinary expectable day-to-day campaign crawl towards May 6, measured by the rhythm of the daily opinion polls, television remains (along with national radio) the single most cohesive medium in the public sphere, simply by pulling in the mass audience to the same agenda. With something like 10m viewers for the live transmission of the first debate, the television event became a clincher and provoked the unforessen (the second debate had around 4m). But its effects cannot be understood in isolation, because they feed back into the internet in a large variety of forms. Some of this feedback is about different ways of reading the agenda, some, but not very much, is about what isn’t on it. In other words, this hasn’t just been the first televised leaders’ debate, but the first interactive election campaign. It’s impossible to say whether Clegg’s impact would have been so great without lots of people tweeting and texting about it. Ten million reported viewers doesn’t mean they all watched attentively from start to finish; we don’t know how many switched on because someone tweeted or texted them, but there is reason to suppose that parallel peripheral communication produces a multiplier effect.
Surveying the videos which have appeared in the wake of the first debate, there is first of all the emergent subgenre of the mash-up, which chops up the full ninety minutes and reduces it to three or four. A few examples (if you only look at one, the first is the most amusing):
- UK Leaders Election Debate mashup
- Mash-up of the first 2010 Election Leaders Debate
- The UK Election TV Debate – COMEDY MASH-UP
- Election 2010 debate (scam) please watch !!!
The last example, a little closer to the traditions of experimental video art, comes from the mysterious American political humour site, Joe Biden Videos.
The general stance of these collage pieces is a plague on all your houses. They are more or less clever, more or less snappy parodies which reduce the politicians’ carefully-honed discourse to nonsense. A perfectly honourable tradition of political satire. There is another strand which is more partisan, sometimes targeting mainstream politicking and sometimes individuals. They often use computer graphics and found images, and some take the generic form of the music video:
- Cameron: “All children to be uploaded to YouTube by 2012″
- David Cameron sings ‘Common People’
- Labservative General Election Manifesto
- Labservative Re-election Campaign – the public react
There’s also one, from The Independent, which is serious:
- The truth behind the UK general election
It isn’t over yet, of course, so no conclusions should yet be drawn, except that so far what’s up there is enjoyable but mostly not very honed, either aesthetically or politically. Which means that internet culture still has a long way to go, at least in the arena of national politics in the UK, before it moves on from reactive political agitation to a more progressive mode of active intervention.