In February, when I asked Ed McRandal, consultant at Insight Consulting Group, whether this year’s General Election would be a ‘social media election’, he said this: ‘Anyone who thinks this will be The Social Media Election is wrong.’
Now, as the dust is settling after perhaps one of the most surprising election results in recent history, it seems McRandal was right. ‘It’s probably the last time you’ll hear it called the first social media election,’ says McRandal.
It is now clear that social media is merely a channel and not a lifeline for politicians hoping to win in their constituency. ‘If you’ve got a good message, social media is a great place to share it,’ says Ben Carson, head of product at social media monitoring service Yatterbox, adding: ‘You’ve actually got to have a good message’ first.
Mark Pack, associate director at Blue Rubicon, agrees, stating that social media is a ‘magnifier, not a creator’.
Carson notes that it is ‘less useful as a predictor as it is at getting useful information’, which seems fair given the disparity between social media presence and number of seats won. Research from ElectUK, an app created by Tata Consultancy Services to track trends in the final week running up to the election, found that Labour held the majority of the voice on Twitter, with a 30.9 per cent of the conversation. In comparison, UKIP followed shortly behind with a 27.3 per cent share, whilst the Conservatives trailed behind with just 7.1 per cent, a share only slightly higher than that of the Liberal Democrats, who came fifth.
But a high level of social media presence, clearly, does not translate into unwavering support. Many have acknowledged that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have served to reinforce users’ opinions rather than challenging them. Research by Facebook itself, published in Science, found that users tend to exclusively click on the links they agree with, meaning that their newsfeed continues to show similar content as a result of the platform’s algorithm, thus creating an echo chamber or ‘filter bubble’. Similarly on Twitter, people tend to follow users they agree with, rather than those they don’t.
‘It can be quite damaging,’ says McRandal. For example, if Labour can see people tweeting in support and retweeting their messages, they might get the impression that that sort of approach is the norm and what people want to see. ‘I do think it can be a negative echo chamber in that sense.’
Failing to engage on social media can also be a flaw in an otherwise complex digital strategy. McRandal notes that the Scottish National Party were particularly effective on Twitter, using the platform in a much more ‘discursive sense’, as opposed to broadcasting, as both David Cameron and Ed Miliband tended to do.
He suggests that one of the SNP’s main rivals, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, was also very adept at using the platform, bringing humour to her communications and engaging wittily with journalists, such as Buzzfeed’s Jamie Ross, with whom she recreated the now infamous photo of Alex Salmond feeding a woman a Solero.
Such Internet humour seemed to go a long way during the election, with journalists consistently picking up on popular hashtags like #EdStone, in honour of a two ton limestone tablet engraved with the Labour Party’s electoral pledges, and #Milifandom, an online campaign started by a 17 year old girl in support of Ed Miliband. But it’s unlikely this actually made any difference to the voting.
‘I’ve not heard anybody say that the Milifandom made a difference,’ says Warwick Smith, managing partner of public policy at Instinctif Partners, but he acknowledges that such phenomena can be taken differently in varying regional areas. Whilst the Milifandom, which Miliband called ‘the most unlikely cult of the 21st century’, might not have had any impact in more northern areas of England, it is likely to have resonated more with metropolitan localities.
McRandal, too, doubts that such memes had much, if any, impact on the outcome. Whilst he admits that many of the tweets about #EdStone were funny, he doesn’t believe such content swayed the voters: ‘I wouldn’t say it lost him any votes. It certainly didn’t win him any.’
But these trends undoubtedly contributed to Miliband’s share of the voice on Twitter.
According to ElectUK, he was the most talked about leader in the last week of the election, with 29.6 per cent of the conversation, more than three quarters of which was positive or neutral in sentiment.
But volume does not equate to support.
‘Where I think social media may have gone wrong is mistaking volume for effectiveness,’ says Smith. ‘Potentially I think we saw a lot of people saying who they were going to vote for and changing their minds, and a lot of people misinterpreting interest for commitment.’
However, other parties such as UKIP and SNP were much more successful with a voluminous social media approach. Whilst this is partially down to leaders Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon (‘We’ve been desperately short of personality,’ says Smith), it is also because, as with the Scottish Independence Referendum, those in opposition are likely to be more vocal in contesting the policies that form the political battleground.
‘If you’re just being Not the others, it’s easier to have that volume on social media,’ says Smith of UKIP in particular. ‘It is easier for those sorts of parties than for the more issue-focussed parties.’
McRandal agrees: ‘Social media is always going to favour insurgent parties, in terms of firming up supporters.’
‘People weren’t voting for them [UKIP], they were voting against everyone else,’ adds Smith.
But Weber Shandwick believes that social media does play a role in determining an election’s outcome. Its research suggests social media is the third most influential factor when it comes to making a voting decision, after television and family and friends.
‘The marked influence of social media is striking,’ says Jon McLeod, chairman of corporate, financial and public affairs at Weber Shandwick. ‘These channels have taken their place among the most trusted forms of communication, leaving conventional politics trailing in their wake in terms of influence.’
Twitter’s own research revealed that one in three UK Twitter users aged between 18 to 34 changed their vote from one party to another based on something they had seen on Twitter. Nearly half of the same demographic also reconsidered their views on a specific issue as a result of something they had seen on the platform.
Smith suggests that social media’s capacity for influence lies in its ability to target voters. ‘It’s all about research and targeting,’ he says. ‘It is a shift from mass media to targeted engagement. Gone are the days that politicians’ faces appear on large billboards. Analogue and digital targeting are now used where people knock on doors, and send tailored campaign information.’
It is less a social media revolution but a change in the balance between channels. The middle ground of mass media has ‘disappeared’, placing more emphasis on individuals, especially with the election result expected to have been so tight.
McLeod also sees targeted digital content as the way forward. He argues that the parties did not put enough effort into Facebook (perhaps tellingly, this is where the Conservatives spent the most money), and make effective use of the data it provides. It is not enough, for McLeod, that politicians and pollsters ask about voting intentions or party allegiances; they must also find out more, such as what kind of citizen they are talking to, in order to target them properly.
He compares politics to corporate data and suggests that the former has a lot to learn from platforms like Mosaic, Experian’s system for classification of UK households, which classifies the UK into 67 household types and 15 groups. ‘The challenge for all politicians is not just using social media,’ explains McLeod. ‘It is understanding how to use data.’
‘It’s not revolutionary: it’s just using targeted advertising within a social media context,’ says McRandal.
The political landscape has not changed, in this case, as much as some would like to believe. ‘I don’t think that the world has changed that much, people are quite traditional. The reliance on television media is enormous,’ says McLeod.
Smith agrees and adds that traditional political tactics such as door-to-door canvassing and the value of traditional media are not yet dead, though the ground has somewhat shifted. ‘Had the polls been right, we’d have all written off traditional media. And it would be a brave person who says that seven out of the nine dailies who came out in support of the Tories didn’t have an impact, but I think it’s a peripheral impact.’
‘Traditional media has more of an impact in driving the agenda,’ says McRandal, citing the Daily Telegraph and the letter it published in support of the Tories, signed by 5,000 business owners, as an example.
Social media does not exist in a vacuum. ‘It has to be done as part of a wider campaign,’ says McRandal, suggesting ploys like comedian Russell Brand’s interview with Miliband as an instance of Twitter celebrity failing to translate into support. Brand has 9.72 million followers on Twitter alone.
‘I think people are much more sophisticated than that [when making these decisions], which we don’t give them enough credit for.’
Despite its limitations, social media will remain an important part of politics going forward. According to Pack, its power lies in interaction with the media and in its ability to motivate potential new recruits quickly. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour experienced a surge in membership in the 24 hours following polling day.
‘Internet enables that speed to raise momentum,’ explains Pack. ‘People have to react quickly enough and the SNP did that really well after the Independence Referendum, capitalising on trends.’
Perhaps it wasn’t The Social Media Election some thought it would be, but with 88 per cent of MPs now on Twitter (including 96 per cent of those newly appointed), the relationship between social media and politics isn’t dead. It’s thriving, but that doesn’t mean other channels should be ignored.