How social media has affected political campaigning and what we can expect in 2015

It’s difficult to contemplate the fact that Twitter was only created in 2006, and Facebook in 2004. It’s even stranger to remember that there was a time within my own lifetime when my family didn’t even own a computer. Now we have a laptop each, and more social media accounts than you could shake a stick at; Twitter and Facebook seem ubiquitous. Rapid technological advancement culminating it the dawn of the internet age has had a major impact on all industries. Commercial advertising and broadcast media have had to swiftly adapt to the new methods of communication in order to swim rather than sink. Amazon is slowly but surely crushing the life out of HMV. The publishing and journalism spheres have perhaps felt most keenly the sting of the replacement of print media with digital. Yet the explosion of social media is a source of power as well as destruction. Still so relatively new, its potential is still partially untapped, and its development unpredictable.

Barack Obama was the first to capitalise upon the media revolution by enacting a wide scale social and digital campaign in 2008, leaving John McCain looking like the grandfather who needs help sending an email. Obama aided his bid for the presidency with a major online strategy. His website, barackobama.com, was run by one of the founders of Facebook and saw two million accounts created to support Obama’s bid. During the 2008 campaign Obama’s Twitter account was intermittently the world’s most followed and he had more ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ than McCain. In 2012 The US election was repeatedly referred to as the Twitter election and the most retweeted tweet of the year was a picture of Barack and Michelle Obama hugging with the caption ‘Four More Years’. This tweet surpassed 500,000 retweets and was sent by people in more than 200 countries around the world. Yet what was once a novel and exciting new means of communication is now the norm, and many politicians have jumped on the social media bandwagon in attempt to recreate Obama’s success.

2010 was the first ‘new media’ general election in the UK, and during the third television debate there were 154,342 tweets -coming at 26.77 tweets a second – spread among 33,095 people. While Tweeters were engaged, did any one politician manage to dominate the social media sphere a la Obama in 2008? While Nick Clegg benefited from the television debates, in regard to using the internet the answer is no. On Facebook the group for the Conservatives amassed 74,500 members, the Liberal Democrats had 74,000, and Labour trailed with 33,000. Yet the most popular group was the ‘Vandalised Conservative Billboards’, with 123,000 members. This group mocked the Conservative marketing strategy by humorously digitally altering the slogan on their billboards. The popularity of this group illustrates an important part of social media that is not often mentioned: the tendency to use social media not as a forum for political discourse but as an auditorium for poking fun at politicians. Indeed despite all that is said about the supposed disillusionment of Generation Y, we are in fact more participatory than ever before. Our efforts might not be seen in terms of turnout, but in creative disparagement.

In 2012 Romney’s gaff about ‘binders full of women’ sparked a meme which went viral, while just one photo of Hillary Clinton on her phone sparked a tumblr page called ‘Texts from Hillary’. On Buzzfeed an article was posted entitled ‘Most Bizarre Political Moments of 2013’, devoted to highlights of UK politicians ‘trying to out-weird each other’, while The Daily Beast has a gallery called ‘Epic Political Photo-Op Flops.’ George Osborne tweeted a picture of himself eating a takeaway burger and chips the night before the spending review, but revelations that the burger came from the upmarket chain Byron and cost at least £6.75 led to an article on the front page of the Sun entitled ‘Shamburger’. Eric Pickles then used Twitter to poke fun at Osborne by mimicking his photo. Social media and the internet, then, are not only tools of organisation, mobilisation, and political communication, but in the age of irony provide a space for the dissemination and magnification of mistakes. So now that we know about the double-edged sword of social media, what can we expect for 2015?

The use of Twitter to rebut criticism, for one. Labour’s election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, last month highlighted the need for Labour to use social media in order to respond more quickly and effectively to Conservative attacks, who are purportedly planning to employ a ‘smear and fear’ campaign. Speaking on BBC’s ‘This Week’ Alastair Campbell also said he believes the 2015 general election will be the first ‘genuine social media election’, pointing to the 10 million people in the UK now on Twitter compared to just 9 million reading a newspaper. While Twitter is generally used by the young, and only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010, the fastest growing demographic on twitter is the 55-64 age bracket, which has grown 79% since just 2012. Social media is thus a legitimate means of communicating with the general electorate.  As the internet is now the main source of information, we can expect to read a lot more about policy via social media. Twitter feeds will no longer be used merely as supplements to ground work and as a method of appealing to the young sector of the electorate, but as a genuine portal for sharing policy information. Labour has already started attempting to attract attention to policy with their #freezethatbill hashtag.

Other social media websites, such as Reddit, Tumblr, and Instagram, are more untapped sources of communication with different demographics. Internet-savvy politicians may follow Obama’s lead and use Reddit for a question and answer session. Tumblr can be used for blogging, posting, and reposting photos, and Instagram can be used to post stylized photographs taken on the campaign trail. YouTube has already been used for small political segments, and we can expect this to continue. Yet while politicians in the run-up to 2015 will attempt to directly connect with voters using these various new forms of social media, we can also expect biting responses from social media users. As has been shown, one small gaff can spark a huge and cutting response.

While using social media in addition to traditional media means that parties are able to respond more quickly to criticism, it’s much more difficult to spin something when you’re not just thinking in terms of a few newspapers, but in the many-headed multitude. The definition of tweet is ‘(n.) a chirping sound, as of a small bird’.  Yet when you add all those chirping sounds together you’ll find that the voice of Twitter cannot be drowned out. Each member of Twitter is effectively a member of the press, with the website a mob of individual reporters uncontrollably micro-blogging their opinions.  Politicians can control what goes into social media, but not what comes out of it.  This diffusion of power is democratic but, for the campaign strategist, dangerous.

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