The anti-social media election: digital can do much more for parties

“Fighting a word of mouth campaign and having conversations is absolutely what political parties should be doing. But they have to be genuine conversations which means ditching the antiquated simplistic messaging formulas. Slavishly repeating exactly the same phrase over and over again just turns people off and makes them tune out. You can continually repeat the idea behind the message, but only if you constantly adapt it to the circumstances and use your own words.”

Stuart Bruce blogging about election campaigns in January 2015

Labour's campaign poster on the NHS
Depressingly familiar: campaign scare tactics made noise but didn’t cut through

It’s taken me until now to write about the election.

After months of conversations about preparing for another hung parliament, or even a minority government and second election later this year, I was massively surprised by the result. I’m still in shock about the outcome and can’t begin to explain it; the Westminster crew will doubtless spend the next six months pouring over every detail in its search for answers.

One aspect of the election I can offer a view on relates to my experience of the campaign over the past few weeks. There wasn’t any direct contact with my family, even though we live in one of the most marginal seats in the South West – where former MP Tessa Munt won the seat of Wells in 2010 by around 800 votes. This was a race with just two horses, with a 1% swing to the Conservatives enough to unseat the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP.

Save for a few drab leaflets through our door, nobody came to our street to talk to us or our neighbours. It may not have made a difference to the result, such was the scale of Tessa’s defeat. But the quality of direct campaigning was a depressing feature of the election for me.

I’ve read lots recently about the extent to which this was the ‘social media election’, with digital campaigning techniques spawning a ‘new era’ of engagement and parties reaching out to people. It was claimed that whoever won the social media campaign would win the keys to Number 10, which has been put into context by Stephen Waddington this week. I’d go further than those who’ve said the social media campaigning has been depressing and one-dimensional. While there was much to enjoy and fascinate, the main party campaigns were largely anti-social and a turn off.

A bit harsh? Read Stuart’s blog piece from January about why campaigning has to change and ask whether it really did.

‘Anti social’ media

Too often, social media was a battle-ground for tribes to blast out key messages, images or hashtags when a more targeted effort to build communities of people affected by their campaigns was sadly lacking.

Remember #CameronMustGo? Looking at its use on my Twitter feed for months suggested that it was only being pushed by those who were already anti-Tory. This isn’t meaningful digital engagement. It’s Twitter as an echo chamber, and a pretty noisy one at that. The ‘let’s get this trending’ tactic is the digital world’s equivalent of traditional PR’s ‘don’t read it, weigh it’ approach to media relations. It uses blanket messaging at the expense of building influence that could advance a cause.

Looking at many politicians’ Twitter feeds further illustrates this problem. Check Ed Miliband’s replies as an example (there aren’t any, by the way). Or former housing minister Brandon Lewis, who offers a few more replies among a stream of key lines that could be straight from Conservative Party HQ. All the infographics, short video and jumping on trends like #millifandom doesn’t mask my feeling that too much of the parties’ social media content was old-fashioned thinking using modern platforms. Crucially, it lacked the authenticity needed to build support. And it certainly wasn’t conversational in the sense that, well, a genuine conversation is.

Hysterical scare-mongering over issues like the death of the NHS and break-up of the UK were further black marks against the main parties which outweighed any positive support that genuine engagement could have created.

As for the #edstone media stunt that even The Guardian called ‘desperate stuff’, I’m pleased it was called out on social media.

I really hope the parties learn from this. To do so, they need to reflect on the spin tactics and strive to be more authentic, relevant and accessible next time.

With trust in politicians at an all time low, there’s never been a better time to engage more positively and meaningfully with voters. This phenomenon also provides an opportunity for party activists and local politicians to use social media more positively to restore trust in parties.

With the next battleground likely to be the in-out referendum on Europe in 2016, I’m not holding my breath…

6 thoughts on “The anti-social media election: digital can do much more for parties

  1. Nice post Ben, social media and politics could be so much more engaging if they didn’t just say the same thing over and over. Stuart is the man for politics – the Labour party should hire him as their social media consultant and tackle it properly next time. I also think some people tweet and retweet one thing but then vote another way.

    What people say and what they do are two very different things.

    1. That’s a fair point Chris, and there has been some excellent research into this by people who know more about it than me. If what you say is accurate, then that’s even more of a reason to engage properly with people of all views in my opinion. Thanks for your feedback on my post.

  2. Good reflections Ben. Yet to see any MPs truly use SocMed. Lots of broadcast and very bland. Hopefully in the aftermath of many reviews some good examples will emerge.

    1. Thanke Ade, I agree. I hope I never see another picture on my Twitter feed of would-be MPs on the doorstep braving the weather to fight a ‘fantastic campaign’ *random hashtag*. But I accept that’s not going to happen!

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