Politicians give social media a vote of confidence

Since Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008 by harnessing the power of online platforms like Facebook, and especially Twitter, others have followed suit, says Carl Miller
Politicians give social media a vote of confidence

EVER since US President Barack Obama’s first, thundering victory in 2008, elections have been changing. The art of winning power happens online as well as offline. By 2012, Obama’s huge digital successes were impossible for other politicians to ignore.

He used his 45m Facebook likes, 23m Twitter followers and a dedicated platform to raise $690m online and to organise hundreds of thousands of offline events. Others quickly followed suit, and, in 2014, India’s Narendra Modi enlisted two million volunteers via the internet, and used it to crowd-source the manifesto of his party, the BJP.

Last year’s British general election also involved a burst in digital electioneering, and the research and post-mortem into what happened, and what it all means, is under way. So, as the days count down to the general election here, these are the lessons from the UK.

First, expect the emergence of Twitter as a new political battleground. The election will utilise many digital channels: Facebook will target floating voters, and good old email will squeeze money from the party faithful, but Twitter will be the most visible, and public, site of online conflict.

Political parties know that it will be a space they cannot ignore and they have been preparing for some time to fight on this new front.

Digital teams, many containing veterans of other campaigns, will spend unprecedented amounts of time and effort using the new weapons in the political arsenal: memes will be hastily knocked up to puncture the arguments of opponents and exploit their gaffes; while virals — the kind of message you just can’t help sharing — will spread messages as far and as wide as possible.

Underneath all the humour and colourful imagery, largely invisible, but very serious, science will be at work, measuring, comparing, and refining the strategies in play.

This battleground won’t play by the rules of conventional politics, and expect to see a ruder, rawer, more honest side of politicians than ever before.

For decades, central party hubs have enforced ‘message discipline’ on their politicians, carefully selecting spokespeople to talk to mainstream media and choreographing events on the campaign trail. All of this will be washed away in a river of Tweets.

Frazzled, tired, and frustrated by the campaign, politicians will, deliberately or not, let their public masks slip. Some 1,300 Tweets by politicians during the UK general election contained a swearword. The public will be even less forgiving, and will use Twitter to vent their anger at politicians, especially leaders. Some 110,000 tweets during the British campaign abused a politician —one in 50 of all tweets sent to them over that time.

Politicians will also use Twitter to depart from the party line. During the UK campaign, Labour MPs used Twitter to disagree with their own party on nuclear-weapons renewal; the Conservatives did the same for Europe.

In other cases, it will be the silence of candidates that will undermine the centrally coordinated campaigns. Of over 187,000 tweets sent by Labour candidates, only 118 mentioned one off their less popular policies — mansion tax.

Both Labour and Tory candidates learned an important tactic as the campaign progressed: avoid any mention of their leader. Just a few hundred tweets from politicians did so, out of hundreds of thousands.

Overall, incumbent politicians will struggle. From Ukip and the Scottish National Party in the UK, to the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Podemos in Spain, the largest digital swells have always clustered around the groups who have most successfully cast themselves as outsiders set on puncturing the complacency of business-as-usual politics.

Tweets do not equal votes, and, to make any of this matter, politicians will need to succeed in the difficult alchemy of turning tweets and ‘likes’ into the hard currencies of politics: volunteers, donations and, of course, electoral victory. For some, especially young voters, the digital world will be an important window into the campaign, and the decision that they make at the ballot box. For the majority, it will not be.

Politics remains local, even when it goes online, and Twitter will likely matter most, as it plays a part in the narrower, concrete debates about the hospitals, services, and choices that affect people’s lives.

During the British election, the Conservatives’ national Twitter campaign stalled badly. They received more criticism on Twitter than any other party, and their most famous figures were also Twitter’s most unpopular.

However, the local picture was radically different. Their candidates in some of the closest races avoided broadcasting national slogans, and, instead, engaged in local, two-way conversations in which they listened as well as spoke. These politicians did better than any of their counterparts.

However, Twitter’s most important influence on the campaign will probably not be about parties and politicians. It will be how it changes politics for the rest of us.

Professional politicians are not particularly powerful, loud or even competent voices on Twitter; actors, celebrities, sports stars, and singers are the kings and queens of social media.

Politicians will find themselves rubbing shoulders with other, often more powerful and more popular voices, some of them well-known public figures, others who have emerged on Twitter itself.

The loudest, single message on Twitter during the UK leaders’ debate — itself the largest digital moment in British political history — did not come from a politician, nor a professional commentator or prominent journalist. It came from a photoshop satirist called General Boles.

Twitter will allow a new public debate to form about the future direction that Ireland should take, and it will be one that anyone can join.

Large numbers will do so, to collectively experience important events, challenge policies, throw insults, share jokes, and otherwise simply join in with this often irreverent, but certainly important, new venue for political debate.

Politics is getting ruder, faster and more exciting, and many — some for the first time — will find their own voices and jump into the crossfire.

Carl Miller is research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media; carl.miller@demos.co.uk

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