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Liberal Democrat MPs have learnt that social media is a two-way street

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

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Whatever the outcome of the increasingly frenzied negotiations between the political parties at Westminster today, I think we have started to see how influential social media can be in modern political debate.

All through the election people were waiting for social media to exert a real influence and apart from the ridicule of the Tory press's smear campaign against Nick Clegg it never really happened. Many commentators have already rushed to the conclusion that social media was the dog that didn't bark. They were premature.

While the TV debates were always going to be the biggest novelty factor in the election campaign itself, although just how much influence they had is going to take some very thoughtful analysis, I think that social media is showing more of its potential in the aftermath of the election.

The Liberal Democrats focussed on Facebook as their main social media platform during the campaign and every MP and candidate with a serious chance of winning was encouraged to set up Facebook pages and groups. The way this presence on Facebook was used has been rightly criticised by many commentators for being too much about 'pushing' information to followers but over the weekend the tables were turned.

As it became clear that Nick Clegg was serious about negotiating with the Tories - as he promised he would during the campaign as they had the most votes and the most seats - there was an outpouring of outrage from Liberal Democrat activists. In previous generations making these views known to their party leadership over a weekend in the immediate aftermath of an election would have been very hard but the social media presence, especially on Facebook, suddenly became a two-way street. Within hours of being set up, groups that opposed the talks with the Tories attracted tens of thousands of members and every Liberal Democrat MP from Nick Clegg downwards was bombarded with views from the party's all-important activist base (without funding from business or the unions the Liberal Democrats are more dependent on individual supporters than the other two parties) making it clear that the majority were instinctively opposed to a deal with the Tories.

What effect did this have? At the very least it must have strengthened the resolve of the one-third of the party's MPs who are identified with the party's radical left and will have worried many others who know that their small majorities are vulnerable to attack if the Labour vote rises and their grassroot workers desert them. This will have been a major factor in the debates Nick Clegg had with his Parliamentary colleagues yesterday and which resulted in the first Tory offer being rejected.

Of course, events suddenly accelerated after that with Gordon Brown resigning and the Conservatives surprisingly coming back with an offer of limited political and electoral reform. This morning a trawl through Facebook and Twitter suggests that Liberal Democrat supporters are now more divided over their preferences in terms of who they support and whether there should be any coalition at all. Nick Clegg and his staff will be monitoring that reaction very closely.

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