The Evolution of Social Media in Politics and our Elections

As with most innovations, the political sphere lagged behind the business world in adapting to the social media age. Early attempts to utilise such platforms were clumsy – including a Facebook page set up by the Government in 2010 for people to post suggestions for cuts in public spending. The page only received 44 Likes in its first week.

Yet, 14 years hence, politics and social media are firmly intertwined. With the help of consultancies and savvy professionals, social media has become not just a tool but a battleground for election campaigns.

2015 General Election – A New Beginning for Campaign Media?

The 2015 UK general election marked a significant moment in British politics regarding the use of social media for political engagement. Both major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, heavily invested in social media strategies to reach voters. Labour utilised Blue State Digital, known for its work on Barack Obama’s campaigns, while the Conservatives spent substantial amounts on Facebook advertising.

This adoption of online platforms undoubtedly came from the success of Obama’s team in leveraging social media to foster grassroots support. Tools were provided for supporters to organise events, volunteer, and donate. This mobilisation was critical in generating enthusiasm and participation among young voters.

Despite these advancements, traditional media, especially broadcast media, remained more influential in shaping public opinion during the election – most social media conversation was in response to broadcast media content. However, the trend suggested that the influence of social media was set to grow in future elections.

The Power of Micro-Targeting and Analytics, the 2016 Boom and Controversy

There was an obvious benefit to the use of social media for campaigns, it was a means to communicate with tens of millions of users at the click of a button including, politicians hoped, young people who had typically been seen as politically apathetic. However, perhaps to the largest extent yet, 2016 saw the utilisation data driven campaigning online.

Now infamously, consulting firm Cambridge Analytica were hired by the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and by Vote Leave in the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union. Cambridge Analytica were accused of harvesting data from millions of Facebook users without their consent, which was then used for targeted campaign advertising.

The official Vote Leave campaign spent over £2.7 million on targeted Facebook ads to influence specific groups during the 2016 EU referendum. These ads focused on issues like immigration and animal rights, targeting people based on personal data such as age and location.

Research from CEPR also shows that social media, specifically Twitter (now X), played a critical role in the election of Donald Trump. The platform created echo chambers, galvanising his base, and allowed Trump to communicate with voters directly in his unique manner.

2019 General Election – A New Era of Digital Campaigning

The 2019 party campaigns relied on social media messaging like no election previously, with most of the larger parties pushing their messages across a variety of platforms. Facebook and Instagram were particularly impactful, with millions of views driving the parties’ agendas forward.

Google ads were a central component of the digital campaign. The Conservatives ramped up their spending, investing £211,000 on Google ads in the campaign’s final week. They also utilised prominent YouTube ads, aiming to engage young voters with high-visibility placements.

AI Concerns Overblown? The Rise of TikTok

Before the election, there were serious concerns that emergence of AI generated content would lead to an unprecedented amount of disinformation. Indeed, before the campaign kicked off the Centre for Policy Studies dubbed this ‘the first deepfake election’. Luckily, while examples of deepfakes have occurred, its not been anywhere near the extent that was first thought.

Since the 2019 General Election, TikTok has become another battleground for the parties to hash it out and to sway opinion. In a change of tact from targeting older voters, Nigel Farage and his Reform Party have put a great emphasis on the platform. In fact, Farage has more engagement on his TikTok content than any other leader or party. Reform polls better among 18 – 24 year olds (11%) than the Conservative Party (5%), with commentators arguing this is in part due to its TikTok success.

Conclusion

As we move forward, social media will undoubtedly continue to evolve, further shaping our elections and broader political discourse. Platforms will adapt, new tools will emerge, and the ways in which politicians and voters interact will continue to transform.

This ongoing evolution will bring both opportunities and challenges, but it is certain that social media will remain within in the fabric of our elections.

HJS



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