Candidates Keep One Foot on the Street as They Dip into the Online World; with Facebook and Twitter Taking the World by Storm, the World of Social Networking Has Changed beyond All Recognition since the Last Assembly Elections. Brendan Hughes Looks at What the New Social Media Have Brought to the Campaigns This Time Around

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Byline: Brendan Hughes

* N THE stump, suited and booted, leaflets clenched under arms and avid supporters in tow - the well-worn image of the traditional constituency campaign. But in the four years since our last Assembly election, a powerful new battleground has rapidly emerged.

Many Senedd candidates have stepped off the streets and onto the internet in a bid to engage with voters. But can online campaigns win elections? A new study suggests political candidates can indeed win campaigns if they use the internet and social networking.

The research found that 83.75% of Welsh candidates using social media in last May's general election campaign finished in the top three in every constituency.

And a further study released last week claimed social website Facebook could help decide the fate of up to 20 marginal seats in today's Assembly vote.

Dr Toby James, a politics lecturer at Swansea University, says social networking is now seen by parties as an essential part of modern-day election campaigning. "Politicians and campaigners have put a lot of time and resources into social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter in recent years," he said.

"They are wise to do so because they are increasingly part of voters' everyday lives. There has been some evidence that they have been successful in mobilising support especially among the young."

The growth of the internet has spread like an epidemic over the past generation.

YouTube did not exist six years ago, but the website is now an undisputed global media juggernaut, rivalling the BBC and the Murdoch empire.

Likewise, Facebook started life in a college dorm in 2004 and now has 600 million users.

And Twitter has an estimated 200 million users, who generate 65 million tweets every day.

Politicians in Wales may have been slow to join this social phenomenon, but its impact on politics has been instantly visible.

Twitter and Facebook are largely credited for beginning the "I agree with Nick" Clegg-mania of 2010's general election, as well as nurturing the largest vote turnout in a decade.

But the power of social media in politics is still a volatile force, with numerous cases of ill-judged internet interactions coming back to haunt this year's Assembly hopefuls.

Cardiff Central Conservative candidate Matt Smith was reprimanded by his party last week for comparing the leftwing Respect party with paedophiles in a Facebook conversation.

Torfaen BNP candidate Susan Harwood was criticised for displaying highly offensive material that advocated violence against members of a Muslim organisation on her Facebook page. …