Internet 'could cause political downfall'

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The internet could hold the key to success in the General Election - but could just as easily cause political downfall, it was suggested today.

Experts warned of the need to take care as material posted online can "come back to bite you" after Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan was sacked over offensive posts he made on Twitter.

The warning came as commentators and bloggers continued to debate the role the web would play on the polls amid suggestions of an "internet election".

With communications undergoing a dramatic transformation with the growth of the internet, political parties have attempted to reach out to the millions who are online.

In the United States Barack Obama's team capitalised on the potential of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to build support and funding for his presidential bid.

But the pitfalls of web mistakes were laid bare by the emergence of Mr MacLennan's comments, with web experts pointing out that everything on the internet was recorded and could be accessed even after it had been deleted.

Media consultant Alan Stevens said: "You always have to think once, twice or three times before you post something online.

"It can be a permanent record and it can come back to bite you."

But he said if used successfully, the internet could get more people involved in politics, encourage them to vote and help give a "rounded impression" of an individual.

Mr Stevens singled out the "clever" strategies used by Obama and praised Gordon Brown's wife Sarah for her Twittering.

On the whole, however, political parties were "limited" in their use of social media, according to Mr Stevens, who said it was significant that the Prime Minister and David Cameron did not have personal Twitter accounts.

"There is very little engagement at leadership level which is a real missed opportunity," he said.

"People have asked 'is this going to be the social media election?' The answer is 'no, it's clearly not'.

"Many of them are really in the Stone Age when it comes to the media."

Graham Jones, an internet psychologist, said this was the first General Election where social networking could have an impact.

"I suspect that the political parties are completely unprepared," he said. "Even though they have people who are clearly doing things I don't think they are prepared enough, particularly at the local level, as to the impact it's going to have."

In the past, he said, a negative comment expressed on a doorstep while canvassing for votes could have gone largely unnoticed.

But with the advent of social networking such utterings could quickly become "massive".

"The potential for instant massive negativity exists, Mr Jones said. "The only thing to counter that is instantly massive positive messages.

"I am not sure they have got enough hands to the pumps to deal with that."

Mr Jones echoed Mr Stevens' warning, comparing politicians with students whose drunken antics feature in their Facebook photos and later discover future employers are not impressed.

"People need to be more careful and some politicians are not as careful as they ought to be," he said. "Everyone needs to be more careful about what they post online."