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Learning Social Media Lessons from Politics

The western political landscape has arguably never been so volatile outside of wartime. Trump and Brexit are the most obvious manifestations of this tumult. In both cases social media played a pivotal role, as it continues to do with Trump's constant and at times disconcerting Twitter habit. And details are starting to appear about Cambridge Analytica's possible murky role in the Brexit campaign.

The most recent example however is the UK general election. With the dust now more or less settled and the business of billion pound confidence and supply agreements nearly finalised the story of what happened in the ethereal world of Social Media is just starting to become apparent.

Planning is key.

One report has suggested that the Conservative Party (Tories) spent more than £1million on attack ads criticising Jeremy Corbyn alone. Most of these were targeted to the North of England where the Tories felt there were seats up for grabs at the expense of Labour. This as we now know, was a major strategic backfire. Social Media is a potent tool when yielded correctly. Knowing your audience is a central tenet. The backlash against a misplaced message or promotion can be ferocious, not to mention widespread, in a matter of minutes or hours and therefore exponentially more damaging to a given campaign than an ill-placed radio spot or billboard.

In contrast the Labour party ran a mostly positive campaign anchored in the catch-cry "for the many not the few". It was a message that resonated on Social Media, especially younger users; 24 million people viewed their shared content on Facebook in the last week of the campaign alone. To paraphrase one cringy headline put it – The Tories had a snap election but Labour had Snapchat.

In the days and weeks since the election Labour have made no bones about the fact that they had been planning for this snap election for a long a time, having learned harsh lessons from previous elections and the Brexit referendum.

The bull's eye is easier to hit on Social Media.

Labour put unprecedented levels of funding into online advertising, supported by a highly professional data targeting operation. They focused on getting the right message in front of the right voters at the most appropriate moment. The ability to hyper-target meant that they could deliver anti Tory or Lib-Dem messages to voters in constituencies where they were in close run races with one or both of these parties.

Young voters have never really been on the radar for the Conservative party basically because they tend not to be politically engaged. But Social Media has changed that. And the Labour party were acutely aware of this. First time voters who had spent their formative years in the grip of austerity were now ready to have their say. Labour aggressively targeted this audience with messages reminding them to register and then followed these with tailored messages later the same day on issues most important to first time voters. 

They also made excellent use of Snapchat – a platform with 12 million users in the UK that indexes very highly among adults 18-24. A mammoth 7.3 million individual users viewed Labour messages on the platform and 780,000 used the tool to find out where they could cast their vote.

The cult of personality and Social Media influencers.

We have seen before how powerful the cult of personality can be on social media when it comes to political campaigns. Donald Trump is utterly synonymous with this style of campaigning. Theresa May's name dwarfed that of the Conservative Party on campaign buses and posters, but like Hilary Clinton her personal brand proved to be more toxic than previously thought. Corbyn was cut more from the Bernie Sanders mold, similar in age and usually on the right side of history in the eyes of his supporters - 33 year old photos of him being arrested for protesting against apartheid were ubiquitous on Social Media. But this is far from the stereo typical persona of a social influencers that we're used to, without a protein shake or weights bench in sight - Corbyn became an Social Media phenomenon partly because he didn't try to be something he wasn't. 

By contrast May was devastatingly meme-able. Gifs littered the internet, gaffs like being naughty and "running through fields of wheat" added fuel to the oh so shareable fire. Conversely Labour seemed to have had the gate keepers of viral content on their side. In much the same way as the Rubberbandits at home, electronic music and comedy duo Cassette Boy yield far more political influence than the curmudgeonly traditional commentators like Marr and Paxman. They certainly played their part in skewering May and the Tory machine.  Labour utilized celebrities to great effect with acts like Stormzy, JME and Akala endorsing Corbyn – effectively employing the influencer model so popular among advertisers. According to analysis from Buzzfeed, news stories about these endorsements were almost twice as shared as stories about Labour's rise in the opinion polls. 

The same old 'Fake News'.

Fake news has been one of the most serious misnomers of recent years. News, to a greater or lesser extent, has always been difficult to verify. It is frequently inaccurate or misinterpreted. It is all too often manipulated and massaged by vested interests. None of this of course makes it fake, merely untrustworthy. We know from our GroupM quarterly media tracker that when it comes to advertisements social media is not a highly trusted source. However an increasing number of people use social media feeds exclusively for their news consumption. These users navigate from publisher to publisher via feeds to gather a wider range of information in order to formulate their own views. One benefit of this is the fact that one can verify (or at least attempt to verify) the facts as they are presented by simply opening a new tab and running a search. A report by Morar Consulting shows that these people, who get all of their news via social media, were almost five times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative in that last election.

Social Media – the great leveller.

"For the many not the few" takes on extra meaning when it comes to media in the recent UK election. Very few people yield the kind of power and influence needed to print a picture of a prospective prime minister on the front page of a national newspaper in a bin on the day of an election. However, many people can share facts, figures, opinions and yes similar memes whenever they feel like it on Social Media. Which of these has the greater effect on voters is hard to quantify. But one thing is for sure, social media is for the many and not the few – and that's what makes it such a powerful electoral tool.

Ezra Pound the modernist poet declared nearly a century ago that artists were the antennae of the race - that they could detect and predict change in the air long before the masses. Social Media specialists are perhaps now the true antennae. The question is, are they more effective at predicting or influencing that change?