Social Media and the UK election

On Thursday I gave a short presentation at the Media140 #ozpolitics conference in Canberra. My slides are up here, but I thought it was also worth sharing some of the key points.

I wrote a couple of blog posts before the UK election about the potential role of social media, here and here, and I had meant to write a wrap up immediately afterwards, but heh ho…best laid plans etc.

Four months on, and after watching the Australian election unfold in August/September, I’ve had time to reflect on the role of social media in these elections. Here are five conclusions:

1) We need to stop trying to compare apples with oranges. The British and Australian election systems are very different to the US one. In the US, there are more ways, and more time (significantly longer campaigns – years rather than weeks) for people to get involved. Social media helps to build community, but like any community in real life, that takes time.

During the conference, Ambassador Bleich, the current US ambassador to Australia and a campaign advisor for Obama, gave an excellent talk about the ways in which the online aspects of Obama’s campaign were deliberately designed to mimic the off-line campaigning experiences which are the bread and butter of US elections. During extremely short campaigns, where these sorts of fundraising and get-out-the-vote experiences don’t exist, it’s impossible for political parties to directly copy Obama’s techniques.

However, all political parties know there will be future elections, and serious forward planning should be taking place already.

2) We should also stop talking about social media and elections without clearly differentiating between the way it is used by

  • political parties;
  • mainstream media;
  • audience.

Again we tend to make sweeping statements about the impact of social media without clearly defining our terms.

In the UK context, while the political parties and on the whole, the mainstream media were not using social media innovatively to connect with the electorate or the audience, the audience themselves were being very playful, collaborative and active in the social media space.

BBC research after the election showed that 63% of of the audience who use facebook said they either saw or posted something to do with the election on facebook. Yes, it’s true that 57% of the British population isn’t on facebook, and these BBC figures show that 37% of British people on facebook didn’t do anything to do with the election on the social networking site, but when apathy is increasing and turnout, (even during the closest election for 10 years) is 65%, I’ll take those figures.

3) We should stop seeing off and online as separate spaces. The reason television and radio figures are higher than they’ve been for years is because more people are spending time on social media spaces and being reminded about content on television and radio. They are also able to watch television, and listen to radio while tweeting or facebooking.

So while I can understand the gloating of television people that “this wasn’t a social media election, it was a television election” (they have been told ad nauseum for the last couple of years that television is being replaced by social media), that wasn’t entirely true.

Yes, the debates were on television. Yes, the debates were watched by a large number of people but the debates were also social objects. Whereas previously people might have commented to their partner on the sofa, in April, the thousands of comments on social media sites were shared globally. That gave the debates a significantly different feel and added to their success.

4) We also need to be clear about how we’re measuring ‘engagement’. If engagement requires that someone sees a post on facebook, contacts the party, and ends up delivering leaflets around their community on rainy evenings, then it’s true, social media didn’t have much of an impact.

Compare this with the following scenario: an apathetic student sees a post by a friend on facebook about using the slapometer during the debates. As a result they end up talking about it down the pub; they watch the debates together for fun to use the slapometer, and as a result have a conversation about the lack of discussion about student tuition fees during the debates.

This type of scenario occurred much more frequently, and I think it should certainly ‘count’ as significant, even if it is very difficult to measure reliably.

During my talk I put up the following table on one of my slides, and I think it’s worth repeating. There are different ways of measuring ‘engagement’ and it’s worth differentiating between offline and online spaces. Once we separate out these different types of ‘actions’, it gets easier to measure the impact of social media. When we lump everything together, it leads to sweeping generalisations and we fail to understand the subtleties in terms of influence and behaviour .

5) Finally, we shouldn’t dismiss humour as a measure of engagement. People only ‘get’ a joke if they understand the observation it is based upon. John Stewart’s The Daily Show works because people understand what he is poking fun at.

If an alien landed in New York and turned on Comedy Central in her hotel room, she wouldn’t be laughing, because she wouldn’t know anything about the Tea Party, or the length of time war has been waged in Afghanistan. So when people laughed at a poster of Cameron wearing a Burberry baseball cap and holding a can of Stella Artois beer, they are laughing because they know the criticisms levelled at Cameron about his education at Eton School, and the claims that he is out of touch as a result. It’s not just a fart joke.

It’s now September, and the UK election seems a long time ago. But there will be more elections, and social media will be even more influential. Next time, let’s make sure we don’t fall for simplistic characterisations of the impact of social media. Instead let’s try not to dismiss the seemingly frivolous, and remember the importance of defining key terms.

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