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Digital campaigning is an important part of elections today – but going viral is not everything

Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Matt Walsh, HHead of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University

The election campaign has begun and the race is on – to collect as many likes, shares and comments as possible. Digital campaigns, especially via social media, are now an important part of the communication tools of political candidates.

In fact, every election campaign since 1997 has at some point been hailed as the first to use digital campaigns effectively. But it wasn't until 2015 that David Cameron's campaign first used social media strategically to win an election.

As political journalist Tim Ross explains in his excellent book Why the Tories Won, Cameron's team used a strategy book developed by Barack Obama during his 2008 US presidential campaign. With the help of Obama's digital guru Jim Messina, the Conservatives used targeted Facebook advertising to reach voters in key districts and score an unexpected victory.

“Pull through Brexit”

During the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson's team flooded Facebook with messages every 15 minutes about getting Brexit “done,” not only to mobilize their existing supporters, but also to get them to share their posts with undecided voters who could still be persuaded.

When supporters share content with their own networks, messages can also reach supporters of other parties or other “swing voters.” One digital campaigner I interviewed about the 2019 UK general election said, “My favorite shares are the ones that say, 'I don't usually agree with Corbyn or Labour or Momentum – but I agree with this.' Then you've reached someone, and they're showing the content to people who probably feel the same way.”

However, there is no clear evidence of how effective such campaigns are at actually reaching and persuading voters. A study conducted during the 2010 US midterm elections found clear evidence that political communication on a friend's social media page directly influenced voter behavior. The study found that not only the directly targeted users were affected, but also their friends and friends of friends.

This reflected decades-old findings from the theory of two-stage communication, which explains how information travels from the media to opinion leaders and then to the general public. But more recently, a consensus has emerged that the persuasive effect of political advertising is, on average, low.

In 2016, researchers conducted randomized experiments on the voting preferences of 34,000 people during the U.S. presidential election. They found that the persuasive effect of political advertising on voters was small but detectable.

The pitfalls of digital campaigns

Campaigners want voters to be exposed to repeated and consistent core messages. This tactic, sometimes referred to as “water dripping on stone,” has been used by digital election consultants Topham Guerin in several successful campaigns – including for the Conservatives in 2019.

Both major parties have already launched digital campaigns on TikTok and started posting attack memes. New spending limits mean the parties are likely to spend even more money creating tailored content for each platform.

X (formerly Twitter) is seen as of little importance by the major parties, apart from influencing journalists who are hopelessly addicted to it. But Facebook still has reach among older voters, a key demographic for the Conservatives, and Instagram and TikTok will be crucial in reaching younger voters.

Other platforms such as the streaming platform Twitch and relationships with influencers are also likely to be evident in this campaign.

The parties also hope that voter-generated content such as memes and short videos will help their cause – or at least harm their opponents. Peer-to-peer platforms such as WhatsApp will play a special role here, but are also difficult to monitor for disinformation.

Political parties themselves are also in danger of falling into the belief that social media is everything. While the power of the press is not as great as it once was, there are still moments when broadcasters and newspapers can set the agenda, such as during televised debates. And while younger people are more likely to use social media, they are also the demographic least likely to vote.

During the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party demonstrated its strength in digital communication, garnering millions of views through videos and memes. However, in 2019, the party achieved its worst result since the 1930s. Online popularity does not always match voters' actual views.

After the 2019 election, a comprehensive report commissioned by the party from think tank Labour Together was heavily critical of the party's digital approach. The report said Labour's online supporters had “spent too much of the campaign talking to themselves rather than persuading swing voters”.

As political scientist Andrew Chadwick argues, influence flows from mainstream media through social media to parties, activists and supporters and back again. It's an ever-changing landscape, and activists shouldn't overestimate the importance of viral campaigns.

The most important lesson of 2019 is: Don't believe the hype. Social media success is worthless if it isn't accompanied by real activities that convince voters to get out and support you on Election Day.

This article first appeared on The Conversation
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