It’s election week, and the news (and our social feeds) are dominated by party mantras, opinions, and memes. Social media has radically changed since Barack Obama’s first election, just over a decade ago, which was considered by many to be the first to leverage the power of social media. Now, in a post-Cambridge Analytica era, it feels as though boundaries are pushed ever further for political gain. From the controversy surrounding fact-checker UK, to Twitter’s ban on political advertising to limit microtargeting, it’s a complex topic. We all know about the newspapers’ various biases and the restrictive rules regulating politics on TV, but the standards for social media are still in flux. At TopLine Comms, we know a fair bit about media relations, and even we’re asking ourselves: is all fair in social media and politics?

The positives

Digital campaigning for a digital era

Everybody knows that print has declined in favour of digital, but social media is forecast to overtake print in terms of global ad spend for the first time this year. Social media ranks third overall in terms of political advertising, according to the research, behind paid search and TV. This makes sense, as social media offers a powerful ‘owned’ and ‘paid’ channel that is entirely – or almost entirely – in the hands of the parties themselves. This directness is perfect for the fast-moving world of politics and news.

Engaging young voters

The shakeup of media channels is particularly relevant for millennial voters. Millennials make up an estimated 17 million votes in the UK, or just over a third of voters. Youth turnout was its highest in the 2017 elections – the year dubbed the ‘youthquake’. Social media has allowed parties to engage with these digital natives, but this isn’t simply a matter of choosing the right channel, it’s also about culture. These politically essential generations have grown up alongside the internet, they understand the distinct culture and tone of online communication. Politicians who can communicate with them on their terms have an advantage.

Humanising politicians

Allowing voters a glimpse into their personal feeds allows politicians to present themselves as individuals, and make a more human connection with voters. Similarly, the nature of social media prescribes that content must be accessible and not overly complicated or convoluted. The level playing field that this provides means that ordinary people can now tweet their MP, or even party leader, and they may even get a response. The previous barriers to direct communication have been removed, and access has become democratised.

The negatives

Trust – the all important factor

Authenticity and credibility are critical in both social media and politics and combining the two only exacerbates these issues. Add to this the previously mentioned Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it becomes clear that trust is the single largest hurdle facing online campaigns. The scandal manifested widespread concerns about personal data and had a major impact on how voters perceive campaigns’ online presences. Both platforms and parties are working to repair this trust, but without more stringent measures in place to verify content, trust remains a challenge.

Usage and bias

Usage and bias are two major challenges to social media’s role in politics. In 2018, Statista reported that globally, people spend an average of 136 minutes on social media every day. Unlike other channels, such as broadcast and print, we have a more limited ability to filter out messages, meaning that there’s an omnipresent subtext that can be taken advantage of. Second, as an owned channel, social media presents a forum for a dominant ideology to exist, potentially unchallenged, and unbalanced.

Politics and personalities

As political campaigning on social channels continues to grow, we must ask how much our political system and the views of voters have been impacted. Everybody risks falling into algorithmically constructed echo chambers, where their own views are reinforced, and discourse becomes more difficult. Add to this the increasing role of the personal profiles of party leaders, and our system may be at risk of becoming more like that of our neighbours across the pond.

Where does that leave us?

Social media, for better or worse, makes up a crucial part of our lives and our modern society. Given its incredible reach and power, messaging on social media needs to be accurate and accessible to everybody. Regulators must continue to make a concerted effort to create smart, stringent guidelines and enforce them effectively to make sure that these powerful tools are used in a fair, legally compliant way.

As we as consumers become increasingly savvy – and jaded – about social media, campaigns, legislators, platforms, and users must ask themselves serious questions: How can we create a trustworthy, balanced space? Is it even possible to achieve balance with so many competing voices, some arguing in bad faith? What will campaigns look like in 2040? These are questions for the long term, but one thing that we can all do is go out and vote tomorrow.

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