Social media is having an impact on the political and electoral process in many ways and marketing experts have suggested that the 2015 election will be the UK’s first truly digital and social-media-led general election. The main reason for this is the shift from traditional to alternative media; people are having public discussions, sharing information, commenting on TV debates, and potentially interacting with candidates, all on social media platforms.
The Electoral Commission has recognised the necessity to get online and this year it has partnered up with Facebook to reach a broader audience and encourage people to engage in the process. The political parties have also recognised that they need to use alternative communication methods, such as Youtube and Facebook, and they are spending a lot of money to make this happen.
Traditional media and face to face communications between candidates and the electorate have a long and illustrious history. If a politician said or did something ill-advised, it was generally reported the following day, and there was more time to cool off and react to events in a considered way.
Carefully orchestrated campaigns on Facebook, which perhaps most reflect traditional media, can be rapidly derailed elsewhere on other social media. Spelling mistakes, errors of fact or judgement are picked up and shared immediately, and when emotions are running high can result in a damaging public exchange. Twitter is potentially the most risky platform because of its unpredictable and subversive nature.
Candidates are subject to strict rules about what they can say about opponents and there is no reason to suppose that this shouldn’t extend to social media. The case which has most recently looked at section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (RPA) is Watkins v Woolas  EWHC 2702(QB). By making untrue statements about the personal character and conduct of a fellow candidate, the court found Woolas guilty and his election was void.
The court emphasised that s.106 protects the right of the electorate to express its choice on the basis of facts, not false assertions as to the personal character or conduct of the candidates. The penalty for such a breach – the void result and prevention of the offender standing for election for three years – is proportionate. It also found that the section was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and the right to freedom of expression.
One article has warned that conceivably all communications could be covered by this section. For instance, if a keen supporter of a candidate tweets something untrue about the personal character of a political opponent, not only is it defamatory, it could potentially void the election result for his/her candidate’s seat. If allegations are going to be made, they either need to be true, or they must have had reasonable grounds for believing them to be true.
Politics and social media have already shown they are an incendiary combination, and many politicians have had their fingers burned. With social media being personality dependent, it is hard to believe that someone won’t fall foul of RPA at some point. As manifestos are disseminated, and the fight becomes more desperate, personal attacks will no doubt continue, but commentators and candidates alike would do well to remember that attacks on personal character and conduct are unacceptable.