06 May 2015

Social Media and the 2015 General Election

Tuesday the 28th of April marked the 4th annual ‘Ed Balls Day’, with thousands taking to Twitter to mark the occasion. The hashtags #EdBalls and #EdBallsDay trended for the majority of the day. So just why were people reveling in this strange holiday?

Well, because Ed’s misunderstanding of Twitter led him to post this tweet four years ago, whilst trying to search his own name…

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The tweet has become a sort of four-year hangover for the politician. Every year it has given people the chance to fire out all sorts of Ed related things on social media.

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Ed Fest

But he’s not the only target.

The satirisation of politicians and parties is a common feature on the pages of social media. The internet has given people a chance to express themselves beyond the picket line or protest rally. The spaces of social media in particular are hugely politically charged. The lead up to the UK general election has been littered with this sort of satirical imagery. Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Sturgeon and Farage have all received a share of the ribbing. The 2015 election struggle has been acted out each day on the battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook. Celebrities, whose accounts carry massive social capital, with millions of followers have waded in declaring support for one candidate or condemning another. Russell Brand is perhaps the most prolific example of this and as of 2015 has now become a major political influence online. Networks of Twitter and Facebook users aligning themselves to parties or leaders through hashtags have also collectively acquired significant socio-political clout, dominating daily trends. This year the rival ‘Cameronettes’ and ‘Milifans’ have attracted considerable online and print-media attention.

Not quite the Hatfields and McCoys but you get the picture…

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One #Milifan’s Superhero

So does this year represent the first ‘social media election‘?

The contending parties have certainly included social media within their integrated PR campaigns for this year’s general election. Both the Conservative party and Labour are being advised by different digital and communication experts from Obama’s 2012 campaign to help them with their presence online. A huge attraction of social media is that it offers the potential to tap into networks of voters and potential voters, especially with regards to swing seats.

So what does the party by party breakdown look like for social media?

As of 2015, the Conservative party holds the biggest presence on Facebook, whilst Labour has acquired a particular dominance on Twitter. According to Dot-rising, since January 2015, 84,600 tweets have specifically mentioned the Labour party, whilst only 67,900 have mentioned the Tories. Labour has also attracted a higher percentage of positive sentiment in the tweets mentioning the party than tweets mentioning the Conservatives.

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Data and Image from Dotrising.com

It should hardly come as a surprise that as of April 2015, 75% of UK MPs owned Twitter accounts. David Cameron’s own account has around a million followers. An upside of this for the general public is that it gives anyone an (admittedly small) chance to connect with those politicians. Could the @ be the new form of writing a letter to your local MP? Logging on is undoubtedly a good tool for MPs: for self promotion and a way to amplify every message and promise to a huge population of current and potential voters. Although, as the New York Times suggests ‘social media, almost by definition, mocks any efforts by candidates to control their message or their image’. Any slip of the tongue or gaff made by the leaders will inevitably find itself on the Twittersphere. Enter a world in which your twitter feed can feature both the PM posting about his encouraging meeting with some local farmers in Wales next to a posted video showing Cameron awkwardly forgetting which football team he supports.

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It’s Aston Villa David…

Indeed owning an account is not without its pitfalls. As many of us know, accidental posts or over voicing opinions can damage personal image as Ed discovered to some degree. Indeed, several prospective MPs such as UKIP’s Mark Walker or Labour’s Stuart MacLennan have been shown the door as as a result of highly offensive social media posts.

The sophistication of the parties’ online campaigns go well beyond just owning accounts. Powerful software is being used to tap into potential voters in uncertain regions. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are reportedly using the US born program Nation Builder to achieve just this form of filtering. Facebook and Twitter afford significant insight into people’s lives and the right algorithms can help each party direct the appropriate message to the appropriate person like never before. The Conservative party is leading the spending on the network, allocating around £110,000 a month for Facebook advertising. It’s a nationwide tactic implemented on a local level and with the uncertainty of the UK election, ‘micro targeting’ of this kind will likely be hugely significant.

Beyond that, it is highly plausible that the teams behind each party leader and MP use social media to amplify the sorts of satirical imagery aimed at opposition figures. The skeptics in us should critically consider the success of certain hashtags and images that have dominated Twitter and Facebook in the election build up.

What is clear at least is that social media has given us, the people, new political agency; to voice our concerns both as individuals and in groups. Or at the very least the ability to simply unload our frustration on the varying ineptitudes of the parties, their pawns and their promises through some cutting edge satire. It’s networking power however has not gone unnoticed by the political elite, who will look to extend their reach online.

Who knows what the future will bring for parties trying to delve deeper into social media? Will we be receiving Snapchats from our local MPs, geo-snapping all those with devices located within their constituency regions? It is a possibility. I would suggest the political crowd needs to err on the side of caution before trying to invade even more of our social lives.