Yard signs don’t vote – neither do retweets

Until social media ‘slacktivism’ turns into votes, it can’t be hailed as the prognosticator of elections.

Image source: Liberal Democrats @libdems

There’s an old adage in politics in the States that ‘yard signs don’t vote’.

The first time I heard this was from our veteran communications director while we were driving through my old boss’s rural Georgia congressional district, and I was commenting on the huge number of yard signs I saw for our opponent – vastly outnumbering ours.  My boss went on to win his election by 10 percentage points.

Adapted for the digital age, we say with 100% confidence that Likes, retweets, follows and shares don’t vote either.

Following a paid social media push, the Tories currently have over 360,000 Likes on Facebook, compared with UKIP’s 343,000, Labour’s 216,000, The Greens’ 160,000 and Lib Dems’ 105,000.  Clearly this doesn’t match current polling, which currently has Labour and the Conservatives tied on 35%, trailed by UKIP on 12%, the Liberal Democrats on 8%, and the Greens on 5% (YouGov/Sun, 30th March).

Proclamations that social media will become the next great decider in elections have been made ad nauseum, but until social media ‘slacktivism’ turns into physical action – people going out to vote for the party they have ‘Liked’ – it can’t be hailed as the great prognosticator of elections.

Social media certainly has potential to ruin careers, change opinions and engage people in campaigns.  But what’s not yet proven is social media’s ability to mobilise voters to get to the polls. Having said this, digital campaigning may have softer benefits for political parties in helping them to organise and support more ‘traditional’ campaigning – including facilitating the old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and door-knocking that have formed the basis of election wins for years gone by.

To this end, digital campaigning organisations are putting together tools aimed at turning online activism into offline activism.  38 Degrees, for instance, has unveiled an Election Hub, which allows users to connect with all the other users in their constituency and find out what events are (physically) happening in their area, with the potential to turn slacktivists into activists. Labour’s slick new website also acts like more of a journey with clear calls to action and prompts for visitors to volunteer, donate and vote, connecting them not only with the Party but physically with other supporters in their constituencies.

Yard signs – or in this country, window posters and garden stakes – are still used by parties to create a feeling of momentum in local areas. While the parties will rightly be more interested in which way the canvassing data is going, creating a buzz in a neighbourhood (be it digital or physical) still helps parties to mobilise activists for their team. Social media is increasingly used by party activists to share experiences of endless cold afternoons on the doorstep and feel part of a like-minded community as well as to win votes directly.

What remains to be seen is how many new votes the digital army will secure. So will 2015 be the most social election ever?  Until all parties find a more sure-fire way to turn Likes, follows and retweets into votes, the extent to which that is true is hard to demonstrate.