After relinquishing his seat as the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam before the last election in 2005, Richard Allan has re-emerged as one of the most influential figures in British politics.
First, Allan acted as campaign manager for his fellow Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, who succeeded him as Sheffield Hallam's elected representative and stands as a Westminster kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament. And second, Allan – who says he is no longer a Liberal Democrat but is politically neutral – is overseeing the way that the forthcoming election campaign will evolve on Facebook, the biggest website in the world.
No one, least of all the three main political parties, can afford to ignore the influence of Facebook, which has 400 million members worldwide and last week toppled Google as the most visited website in the United States, a position the search engine has had to itself for three years. In the United Kingdom, Facebook has particularly high penetration, with 24 million users, more than half of whom visit their profile every day. "The way that people engage with politicians or political issues will be dramatically different in this election simply because 12-13 million of them are sharing half-an-hour of every day engaging and sharing content with one another, using a platform like ours," says Allan, 44, who has the grand title "Director of Policy, Europe". Out of politeness, he adds "...and the other platforms as well".
Outside Facebook's London headquarters, tourists are shopping for Carnaby Street souvenirs but Allan is anxious to point out that the social networking site reaches to all corners of Britain. "Sunderland is the top Facebook town," he proudly observes. "We can reasonably claim to be more representative than pretty much anywhere else. Facebook is certainly not a metropolitan elite service – it covers the broad demographic of the United Kingdom."
In recent weeks, all the main parties have been to see Allan and his team. Discussions have taken place on such matters as the policing of "false groups", where fake pages are set up in the name of an individual, such as a parliamentary candidate. "The parties' expectation is that we will be removing fake profiles, so I would be very disappointed to find out they were creating them themselves," says Allan.
Parties have been told that "robust political speech is encouraged" by Facebook and that candidates will not receive the protection from personal attacks afforded to private individuals on the site (if a complaint is made), as long as the language does not descend into "hate speech".
This is an opportunity, he says, for parties to rein in some of the usual control freakery and understand that users are in charge of this environment. "A political party that chooses to simply push stuff out using it as a one-way channel will probably not get far," warns Allan. "The Labour Party can tell you to vote for Gordon Brown but now it's about somebody you know saying 'Have a look at this thing that Gordon Brown has done because it has been given to me in a really interesting way and I want to share it'. The users are deciding the flow of information."
Discussions are underway with broadcasters to ensure that people who watch the televised prime ministerial debates online will be able to do so with their Facebook friends, simultaneously discussing the performances of the party leaders via a live stream, either on Facebook itself or on the site of the broadcaster. Similar facilities were offered during the coverage of Barack Obama's inauguration and Michael Jackson's funeral. "It's adding a social element to an event which is taking place through traditional broadcast media," says Allan.
At the start of the campaign, Facebook will be carrying out a poll of the voting intentions of its vast UK base, using the advertising space on user profiles. A similar poll will be conducted on the eve of the election, along with a call to users to go out and vote. And when they have voted, Facebookers will be invited to advertise the fact to all their friends. "We will run an 'I Have Voted' badge during the day so when you log into Facebook you can tick the box to say you have voted." As part of this "social benefit" of aiding the democratic process, Facebook is working with the Electoral Commission to encourage unregistered voters to participate in the ballot.
Meanwhile Facebook's director of market development, Randi Zuckerberg, (the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, the site's 25-year-old founder), is overseeing the launch of a large-scale UK election hub within Facebook. It has been named DemocracyUK, no doubt to confer more "social benefit" kudos. The hub will be on a similar scale to one which was established for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, on which athletes posted pictures of themselves before and after events, attracting more than 1m users to become "fans". Facebook is talking to London 2012 about doing something similar.
The election hub is part of the way Allan wishes to "surface" the content that users produce during the campaign. "Our expectation is that there will be thousands of groups and thousands of pages across the site on which this political activity is taking place and our job is really to try and curate some of that content which will happen organically," he says. Facebook is talking to YouTube, owned by rival Google, about how to maximise the use of video clips that emerge during the campaign.
Facebook's communications team are hoping that DemocracyUK will produce lots of user-generated stories that can be fed to journalists, though it is not clear that all sections of the British media will welcome Facebook's contribution to the electoral process.
The website has been pilloried in the press following the death of Ashleigh Hall, 17, murdered by a serial rapist who she met on the site. Amid the furore, Home Secretary Alan Johnson has tried to persuade Facebook into introducing a "panic button" facility. Allan has partly acceded, and the button may be added to the site's safety centre. Facebook bosses in America have been shocked by the suspicion with which the site is regarded by some British newspapers and legal action may be brought against The Daily Mail over its coverage.
Yet rival politicians might also be suspicious of all this talk of "curating" and "surfacing" content from a former Liberal Democrat MP. "I was Lib Dem but I'm neutral of course," says Allan with a smile. He regards himself as part of an editorial team. "We're confident we can ensure that there is a reasonable amount of balance but at the same time we are quite keen to see some competition. We've met the three main parties and said we are in the market for good stuff that you are doing."
Allan is exhilarated by the position he finds himself in. "Anyone who is political can see the potential of this thing and so to be in the middle of it is just fascinating," he says, claiming that he feels no pressure over the result but merely wants to see an engaged and well-informed electorate, energised by what they have seen and shared on his website.
All this user-generated political content will be new ground for some of the candidates, he accepts. "It makes it a tougher environment for politicians, who have to perform," he says. "I often use the analogy of a doctor, where the person comes into the surgery these days armed with a whole load of stuff they've printed off the internet. Politicians are confronted with the same thing. The politician who can go with the grain and understand that the power relationship has shifted will go far – but one who tries to bat it away will have a challenge."
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