Factoring in social media for UK election victory

UK parties have taken to social media platforms to garner electoral support and attract voters to the polls.

UK elections
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett holds a portrait made up of words hand-written from people's Twitter opinions [AP]

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was viewed as a landmark moment for the use of social media in politics. Since then, world leaders from India’s Narendra Modi to Nigeria’s Muhamaddu Buhari, have harnessed the power of social media to secure electoral success.

So, too, in the UK the 2015 general election has been fiercely contested online. From Facebook to Instagram, the leaders of the main political parties seek to impress using social media as a cheap and direct method of communicating with the electorate.

A report published by 72Point Digital Hub, translated Facebook likes and Twitter follows into hypothetical votes.

 UK general election

“If Facebook likes were seats in this year’s general election, the result would be a Conservative/UKIP coalition,” the report noted.

However, it concluded if the results were based on Twitter follows, parliament would be a coalition of the Labour party, the Greens, and Scottish Nationalist Party.

As of May 4, the Labour Party led with 211,000  followers on Twitter, while the Conservatives had just 155,000. But on Facebook, the Conservatives had more than 450,000 likes for their page, and the UK Independence party (UKIP) was close behind with more than 445,000, while Labour had about 290,000 likes.  

John Sewell, spokesman for 72Point, said the report uncovered some interesting trends.

“Facebook has become a linchpin for right-wing parties,” he said, “whereas Twitter is more of a left-wing social media channel.”

Party leaders can use social media to circumvent traditional media and communicate directly with the public.

by Marcus Beard, Brandwatch

It is not just the main parties that are utilising social media.

The Green Party chose YouTube as the medium through which to launch its election broadcast.

The campaign video, which depicts other political leaders as a spoof boy-band, urges the public to vote Green and Change the Tune. It had received more than 830,000 views as of May 4.

But these social media interactions do not necessarily transform into real votes. The most recent comparator on the British Isles was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

The official Twitter account of the Yes campaign had nearly three times the followers of the No campaign.

Yet, despite this significant online support, it was ultimately the No campaign that succeeded as Scotland voted to stay within the UK.

Arguably, however, social media played a role in mobilising voters for an unprecedented 84.6 percent turnout.

Many 2015 general election polls predict a hung parliament with no party gaining an overall majority.

YouGov/Sunday Times poll released on May 2, for instance, forecast the vote would be split between the Conservatives at 34 percent and the Labour party at 33 percent. This would, predictably, lead to a coalition government relying on political deals and the cooperation of minority factions.

Using social media

“Party leaders can use social media to circumvent traditional media and communicate directly with the public,” Marcus Beard, a political analyst at Brandwatch, an international social intelligence firm, told Al Jazeera.

“We witnessed this with the Ed Miliband/Russell Brand YouTube interview, effectively bypassing the spin machinery,” Beard added.

Brandwatch, which uses media listening and analytics, found recently the three main topics of debate online were employment, macro-economy and the National Health System.

“Parties should use the social media platform to its full potential, not just to broadcast political messages but to interact and engage with users,” said Beard.

Furthermore, social media could have a significant impact on tapping into the youth demographic.

According to Thinkbroadband’s 2012 survey, more than half of 18-24 year olds, 56 percent, spend in excess of six hours online each day, making them a ready audience for online communication.

Often young people are caricatured as being apathetic about politics. Cross-party think-tank DEMOS views social media’s “critical new spaces” as “organic, less hierarchical”, which political institutions cannot afford to neglect.

Galvanising youth

Perhaps the most unpredictable turn of the social media campaigns has been the establishment of the hashtag #Milifandom on Twitter by a 17-year-old girl known only by her first name Abby.

The “Fandom”, usually reserved for teenage idols such as musicians Justin Beiber and One Direction, caught many traditional pundits by surprise.

Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the Twitter campaign on BBC Radio 2, saying: “I told my wife about it and she thought it must be a case of mistaken identity.”

“I think there’s a serious point here,” Miliband said, “which is hearing the voices of young people in our politics.”

Abby tweeted that she had created the “fandom” because “elections should be about policies, not personal attacks”.

The aim of #Milifandom, she insisted, is to “make sure that people vote for policies, not Rupert Murdoch’s opinion“.

The Labour Party responded in turn through its social media platform on Facebook.

We didn’t see this coming,” a post said. “If you’re fired up about Ed, changing Britain, and making your voice heard, we’d love you to be on the team.”

“This is remarkable because it’s the first time we’ve seen totally spontaneous support for a politician on Twitter … not put out by the party themselves,” social media consultant Alan Stevens told Al Jazeera of the #Milifandom phenomenon. 

 Economics of the British elections

However, political parties shouldn’t get too involved with “a spontaneous, people-led campaign”, Stevens cautioned.

“As soon as this happens, it will begin to look like manipulation of a genuine phenomenon,” he explained. 

The UK Electoral Commission is aware of the importance of social media in galvanising the youth vote and this year launched a new Facebook advertising campaign encouraging 18-year olds to “use your age wisely”. 

This campaign will for the first time use mobil advertising to directly encourage students to register to vote.

The latest impact of social media on the elections has been more tangible with iconic tourist attraction the London Eye, which faces the Houses of Parliament, lit up each evening in political party colours to reflect the number of times each party is mentioned on Facebook.

Social media has clearly played a significant role in the run-up to the general election, said Beard of Brandwatch. He predicted it will only evolve further as voting online or on mobile devices becomes the norm.

Follow Adela Suliman on Twitter: @ASBintBattuta

Source: Al Jazeera