UK's Electoral Abeyance Spurs Social Media Storm

05/14/2010 09:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With a 65% voting turnout, Brits didn't exactly flock to the polls in record numbers for last Thursday's election, but after the results left us in limbo for a five day period with changes still being made to the newly formed coalition government, we've been logging onto twitter and refreshing the BBC's live coverage like it's going out of fashion.

Since U.K. domestic politics is not always the newsmaker it is elsewhere, it isn't surprising that social media failed to set the nation alight during the campaigns as it has done in the U.S., but it has come into its own since the results were announced: with the realization that there was no outright winner, people began to discuss every detail and development, and then as David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed a coalition government, twitter was where this information was shared instantly and cumulatively. Usually, British politics goes viral only when someone makes a gaffe, or when debates get out of hand and videos surface of Members of Parliament yelling across their shiny, leather-seated benches at one another like petulant kindergarteners, but the aftermath of this election led to an outpouring of popular opinion, much of it online.

Journalists and the electorate have overwhelmingly used twitter for their sharing and analysis of the post-election events and coverage. In the wake of the election results, the Internet has suddenly outshone print, which can't keep up with the continuous developments and changes taking place literally by the hour. According to twitter trend mapping site Trendistic, in the post-election drama 1.04% of all tweets made on Monday referred to "Brown," a higher number than at any time before or during the election. Twitter is currently updated around 50 million times per day, so that's a lot of electoral tweeting.

"Clegg" is also currently trending higher than at any time other than election day. In terms of straight news, the shouting front pages of British newspapers have been outdone by the live blogging and tweeting that have commandeered post-election news reporting. Live online updates from the BBC and the Guardian feature the twitter feeds of politicians and commentators, as well as the news as it unfolds, while high-profile media figures exchange opinions publicly and are retweeted by their thousands of followers. Yesterday the Guardian's director of digital content, Emily Bell, tweeted that Murdoch's Sky News had now begun "following twitter rumours," mixing online public comment in with television news reporting. Elsewhere a photograph of Clegg's negotiation demands surfaced on twitter and spread rapidly. It seemed people have been listening to one other as much as to the more traditional heavyweight voices of the media.

"It wasn't an election won or lost by the internet," the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones wrote last week, with justification. None of the three main political parties seem to have made great inroads into twitter, facebook, or any other form of Internet outreach, and it's fair to say that in these fraught post-election days they've had other things to think about. But the Liberal Democrats, on some of the most important days in the history of their party, didn't send out any information via twitter or facebook, where they could have instantly reached and gauged the reactions of tens of thousands of their voters. Before last night's announcement of a new government, their most recent update, posted on Sunday, reads "Today is @VinceCable's birthday. Happy birthday Vince!" as if the shadow chancellor and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats were taking the day off to blow out his candles, rather than sitting in meetings with the opposition, helping to establish his party's first significant government role in living memory.

Britain's political parties seem to have viewed social media as a threat, panicking that a moment's indiscretion captured on someone's video phone could cost them a hard-fought campaign, and to some extent they are right, as "Bigotgate" revealed. But comments from the public have been posted on the Liberal Democrats' facebook page almost every minute for the past two days. The Conservatives, who don't allow public comments on their page, sent out no news during this period, but did find time to upload two new pictures of David Cameron looking statesmanly -- perhaps this is the only news they want to transmit, and Labour updated regularly but not with the news anyone wants to hear: what is going on behind closed doors in Whitehall? In the absence of a cohesive public voice, many have been turning to twitter for the answers.