Monday, 13 April 2009

Labour smear campaign - lessons from 'Barack Obama Muslim' and highlighting the growing importance of social media in UK politics

This weekend the Sunday Times and News Of The World published details of a proposed smear campaign planned from inside 10 Downing Street. The alleged campaign planned to 'destabilise' Conservative party management by circulating a series of rumours / accusations - and rather than being seeded directly to journalists, the smear campaign was to be orchestrated through social media, with stories put into the public domain through the creation of an 'unofficial' blog called the Red Rag.

Smear summaries from News Of The World

Emails from Damian McBride, Downing Street's Head Of Strategy and Planning, found their way into the hands of right wing blogger Guido Fawkes, who then passed them on to the major UK newspapers. The emails from Mr. McBride are alleged to contain details of a number of smear ideas that he had concocted. The smear ideas are said to have been aimed at senior Conservative politicians, with unsubstantiated stories around various themes including affairs, sex aids, prostitution, drugs, mental illness and inappropriate business interests.


The Guardian (and others) today argue "that Labour is still struggling to understand how the blogosphere works. Despite Peter Mandelson's argument that "command and control" Labour methods don't work online, the emails suggest their authors have not grasped that you can't organise anarchy." HOWEVER, I believe that the evidence we have been presented with points to the opposite conclusion.

Damian McBride and Derek Draper would appear to have a very good idea about how the internet works:

- Once a story gets onto the internet / into the blogosphere, it can grow exponentially very quickly

- The key things are seeding it through a suitable source (in this case the proposed Red Rag blog) and then amplifying it through clever technology and networks

- Once on the internet subsequent writers tend to do only loose fact checking and if the story appears in enough places then it is deemed to have some truth and thus propagated further (this is what is prompting the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, to investigate kite marks for credible content)

- Mud sticks - even if a story is profoundly untrue, allegations will still have negative effects (as seen with the Barack Obama Muslim accusations in the Presidential election)

* The email chains and discussions that are featured in the press show that the proposed smear campaign instigators had considered all of the above and were thinking not just about content, but how to place it too.

CASE STUDY: The 'Barack Obama is a Muslim' example:

Bill Tancer of Hitwise writes about the effect of a Fox News story about Barack Obama's 'Muslim heritage' in his book 'Click - what we do online and why it matters.' On 19th January 2007 Fox News reported that Barack Obama had attended an Islamic madrassa in his early childhood from 1967 to 1971. 4 days later CNN discredited this by visiting the school in question and finding no evidence of the teaching of radical Islamic principles.

Tancer writes: 'Before this story, the top searches for Barack Obama were around his background or for the speech he made at the 2004 Democratic Convention.' He goes on to say that 'following the madrassa rumour there was a marked increase in searches for Obama's religious views, specifically his association with Islam.' However, Tancer notes that the really significant thing coming out of this was the enduring nature of a rumour that only lasted 4 days before it was rebuffed, 'if we look at search behaviour one year later, three of the top ten search terms that contain 'Barack Obama' reference his religion or the Muslim religion, and if we look at the searches that contain 'Muslim', six of the top ten terms contain a mention of Barack Obama.'

There were strong denials of the Fox story, corrections and the Obama campaign even ran paid search activity pointing searchers to pages correcting the 'Barack Obama Muslim' story. However, the rumour lived on and was further propagated by the controversial New Yorker cover thefollowing year. The 'Barack Obama Muslim' story shows that on the internet mud doesn't just stick, it lives on indefinitely in Google results / caches and through blogs / UGC that further pick up the story.

If the proposed Labour smear campaign had been started then (much like the 'Obama Muslim' falsehood) it would have been difficult to completely eradicate the proposed stories, even if they were quickly proved to be categorically untrue. The irony now is that it was a blogger who passed the leaked documents to the press and the online mechanics that Labour / McBride aimed to harness are now working against them as the smear story is analysed and grows through the internet.

Aside from the politics (which I will leave others to dissect), this whole news story does show that social media, and the blogosphere particularly, can be really effective at both amplifying messages and acting as a dynamic fulcrum for fast changing news and debate.

This is the beginning of social media becoming really significant in UK politics. The successful Obama campaign has inspired UK parties to pay close attention to internet campaigning and the Damian McBride 'scandal' shows that social thinking will be central to 2010 election campaigning - if nothing else in the UK it is not yet covered properly by the electoral restrictions that apply to traditional broadcast media like TV and radio. Watch this space!

Related posts
The 'devalued Prime Minister' - Daniel Hannan becomes a viral internet celebrity
Daniel Hannan - tracking Wikipedia changes after his speech
5 examples of YouTube influence growing in UK politics
Conservative website goes 2.0 in redesign
Gordon Brown social media sentiment analysis

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Barack Obama is the biggest bastard that i have ever seen and I wish he rots in hell plus he needs to go back to his country the big m************

Anonymous said...

WOW. SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE IGNORANT BIGOT. LOOK AT THE FACE OF REPUBLICANS. NEWS FLASH, OBAMA WAS BORN IN THE UNITED STATES. YOU HAVE TO BE IN ORDER TO BECOME PRESIDENT, BUT YOUR SO SMART I BET YOU KNEW THAT TOO. DO EVERYONE A FAVOR, GO BACK TO YOUR TRAILER HOME AND MAKE CRYSTAL METHANE. I THINK YOU HAVE SUNBURN, AAH YOUR NECKS RED.

Anonymous said...

WOW. SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE IGNORANT BIGOT. LOOK AT THE FACE OF REPUBLICANS. NEWS FLASH, OBAMA WAS BORN IN THE UNITED STATES. YOU HAVE TO BE IN ORDER TO BECOME PRESIDENT, BUT YOUR SO SMART I BET YOU KNEW THAT TOO. DO EVERYONE A FAVOR, GO BACK TO YOUR TRAILER HOME AND MAKE CRYSTAL METHANE. I THINK YOU HAVE SUNBURN, AAH YOUR NECKS RED.