SNAP! So Britain will head to the polls again on June 8th to answer Theresa May’s surprise early election call. Following on the back of the historic Brexit vote and the not so distant 2015 General Election, the polling booth is beginning to feel like a second home. Politics has utilised various methods of coercion, influence and message delivery for centuries of course, but in this communication age . . . how will those spin doctors be giving us our medication?
Although we may think we pledge our political allegiances, freely, based on each party or candidate’s policies, our views are often moulded by carefully targeted and highly optimised political marketing messages. Many of these are overtly and knowingly biased, upfront and easily decipherable, but from talk show appearances to social media, a wide variety of techniques are used to influence the public’s opinions.
Never has this been more apparent than during one of the most intriguing political marketing narratives in recent years; the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump’s rise to power is nothing short of extraordinary from a political perspective. The controversial candidate dominated the news during the election with his outrageous statements, generating billions of dollars’ worth of ‘earned media’.
In comparison, his opposition Hilary Clinton sought to project a calm and collected image through the inclusive tone of her campaign, and use of slogans such as ‘Stronger Together’.
Trump turned the whole thing on its head - and refused to play by the rules of the traditional political game. Rather than rely on carefully planned messaging and managed public announcements, he largely built his following (and corresponding airtime) with an improvised, instantaneous and, ultimately, risky approach . . . social media. With Twitter, in amongst a highly effective broader strategy, often his weapon of choice. And often in the middle of the night.
So following Trump’s surprising (“it couldn’t happen, could it?”) rise to the presidency, what does it tell us about the changing face of mass communication in the political arena? Already proven to affect voting patterns, how will social media (and potentially fake news) help form views, influence debate and impact on our own election?
Social Media is one of the most effective platforms for promoting political candidates, encouraging people to vote and raising awareness of political issues. Since Barack Obama’s run for office in 2008, social media has been widely used by politicians around the world to mobilise grassroots support and awaken the masses. Or at least swing enough votes in their favour to get them over the line.
Social media’s two leading platforms, Facebook and Twitter, have a large percentage of active users under the age of 35,¹ making them the ideal platforms to inspire the voter demographic that is typically unresponsive to mainstream politics.
This has since prompted questions about whether such ‘alternative’ online platforms could help politicians reach a younger, less engaged audience who consume media in very different ways to older generations.
During the 2015 UK General Election online media, including social media, disrupted the long established print and broadcast commentary. Perhaps one of the most notable events was Ed Miliband’s interview for The Trews, a YouTube web series hosted by English comedian, actor and activist Russell Brand. Within its first week, the video had been viewed an impressive 1.2 million times. Not bad for a political video!
Both leading parties, Labour and the Conservatives, certainly recognised the potential for voter engagement via social media during the previous election - with the Conservatives reportedly spending £100,000 per month solely on Facebook advertising, and Labour recruiting the same digital marketing agency used by Obama in his two (winning) presidential runs.
It’s no secret that there’s an ever growing shift in ad spend away from TV in favour of a content-driven, immediate social approach that facilitates greater, real time dialogue with a wider audience. But it’s not just politicians taking this approach during the campaign trail, leading news outlets themselves are also following suit.
During a televised opposition debate for the 2015 General Election, the BBC urged viewers to use the hashtag #BBCdebate. During the evening, this was used more than 400,000 times2 – causing it to trend on Twitter.
But why and how has social media increased our engagement with politics? Nic Newman, Research Associate at Oxford University stated; ‘digital born sites [are] able to think differently and apply their considerable wit and ingenuity to engage with less engaged voters in a way that the BBC and broadsheets have always found hard.’3
Few people really want to sit and read an endless article on the latest complex political theory, or trawl through a manifesto document. But people are engaged with what other people say on social media, because they are able to easily digest it and also potentially contribute . . . so talking, rather than being talked to.
Political parties have and will continue to leverage social media to encourage people to engage with their content instantaneously, but promote people to write the dialogue for them. Political marketers use a variety of strategies to connect with potential voters using social media. These techniques range from the direct and honest messages, posted and shared on an independent, verified Facebook page – to the two words we’ve heard more often in recent months than we’ve had hot dinners: Fake News.
The Rise of Fake News
Confidence in media has dipped significantly following the rise of ‘fake news’. Although the problem is perhaps more rife in the US, the recent spread has been noteworthy in the UK because of the sheer number of views and shares these stories are attracting on social media channels.
But what is fake news?
Fake news is a collection of fictional narratives which are becoming increasingly influential within the public and political discourse, posing as a threat to politicians trying to influence the public’s opinion.
However, in recent weeks key digital influencers including the BBC, Google and Facebook have all said they are actively working towards eradicating fake news.
With the French election currently taking place, and the UK’s snap election less than 6 weeks away, you can expect to see some vast changes from the big news brands towards debunking false information.
However, we’re now at a point where voters will choose to believe what they wish, and with the online echo chamber, news can spread easily far and wide from the initial source; becoming both a high risk element and an effective weapon in politics.
So what does this mean for modern political marketing?
With fake news increasingly taking centre stage and promoting a ‘Chinese whispers’ effect on today’s marketing, coupled with the competing media often obscuring rather than aiding visibility around key issues, it is hard to state that fake news will not be present during the upcoming election.
In fact, it’s inevitable.
So what we’ll see more of on our social media channels will be politicians, public figures, and organisations alike utilising the space to circulate news and . . . shall we say, ‘manoeuvre’ elements of a story to safeguard their image and promote their particular ideology.
So in many ways good old, old school propaganda then! I guess you can switch a politician’s lectern for a more modern type of platform, but many things it seems will always remain the same.
1. Think Digital First The Demographics of Social Media Users in 2017
2. Dr Alec Charles The politics of social media 2015
3. Nic Newman Social sharing, mobile media and the Buzzfeedisation of news 2015