The social media election

Will 2015 finally be the year that the political parties fight the first social media election?

In March 2007, an unknown democratic senator convened some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for an usual meeting. Unlike previous election campaigns – the Senator told the congregation – his campaign would be digital and online. To prove it he would be allocating $16 million to online advertising, $15.5 million more than his opponent, John McCain.

The spend – unprecedented for an election bid – ended up decisive: The ‘social-media election’ as it was termed set a trend that has continued to this day, a trend now well underway on this side of the Atlantic.

To understand the seriousness with which political parties take social media, you need to analyse their financials. Documents obtained by the BBC last month reveal the Conservatives are spending over £100,000 each month on Facebook.

Interestingly, constituency campaigns don’t get such a lion’s share. During the Clacton by-election the party spent only £924 supporting its candidate. Like our American cousins, the Tories are controlling the narrative from Milbank, rather than farming it out to local party organisations.

In contrast, smaller parties are readier to support local campaigns. Until recently UKIP spent only about £100 a month on Facebook. But, at the Newark by-election they invested £3,000 in online advertising.

For Labour, the challenge is altogether different. They cannot outspend the Conservatives. Instead they need to out-organise and out-smart the ‘nasty party’.

Perhaps here they could borrow a few extra tips from our American friends.

Over there virtually all candidates are now on Twitter and Facebook. Some have Instagram accounts brimming with snapshots. Most raise money by email and many more buy online ads.

The challenge they now confront is how to stand out online.

From viral videos to selfies, listicles and “throwback Thursday” photos, candidates in last year’s midterms went to extraordinary lengths to be seen.

This is not always pretty. Before campaigning began, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign team filmed a then-trendy “Harlem Shake” video. In it, a McConnell-masked man dances alone and then is suddenly surrounded by thrashing costumed volunteers, some dressed as President Abraham Lincoln, Rosie the Riveter and a Republican-symbol elephant.

 

Will we see such scenes here? Probably not. Emails are a critical digital strategy for all main parties, and will remain so. Humour has always been an important part of the election cycle, and parties won’t want that to slip into absurdity without careful consideration.

One thing however, is certain. It won’t be a quiet few months for politician’s twitter accounts. Twitter storms, vicious trolls, viral videos, attack articles – the road to social media redemption is rocky, long and unforgiving. Let’s see who survives.