It is only in recent years that online campaigns have begun to be taken seriously as a campaigning tactic for political parties. Previously, politicians stuck to their conventional methods of door-to-door canvassing, posted leaflets, face-to-face reasoning, and large media campaigns spanning across newspapers, radio stations, and TV.
But in an age where the youth vote is becoming increasingly pivotal, parties have had to adapt and stray from convention to attract the attention of one of the most integral voter cohorts.
Social media platforms currently have become digital battlegrounds for opposing parties. In 2015, the Electoral Commission revealed that political parties nationally spent about £1.3 million on Facebook, and by 2017, this number more than doubled to £3.2 million. Within a span of 6 years, reported spending by campaigners on digital advertising has in general soared from 0.3% to 42.8%. In 2018, the Electoral Commission released an entire report dedicated to digital campaigning, and stressed the importance of remaining transparent online in terms of spending, the people behind the campaigns, and the information being spread to the wider public.
Furthermore, ‘meme warfare’ was a hot topic during the 2016 Presidential Election, with some commentators going as far as suggesting that it was, and still is, ruining democracy.
It’s intriguing how political parties in the UK have now seized the opportunity to capitalise on memes and similar pop cultural references to force major traction online.
Admittedly, sometimes the efforts are commendable in offering a short and snappy message that can be shared amongst thousands of followers online. This was especially helpful in the build up to the voter registration deadline, for instance.
Other times, it is difficult to see past the trivialising effect that digital campaigns have on profound social and political issues. Reducing all concerns surrounding immigration into a 2 minute video just doesn’t cut it, regardless of your political affinities. A lo-fi ‘boriswave’ track to ‘relax/get Brexit done to’ may be “a digital literacy we’ve rarely seen in British politics” – especially from the Conservatives, who have previously struggled to sustain an effective social media presence and engage new young voters.
And, there does seem to be a limit to the possibilities of social media campaigns. The Liberal Democrats, for one, have struggled and been mocked for their questionable Facebook posts.
It has been suggested that controversy over social media election campaign posts is helpful in spreading political messages and gaining recognition online. The political strategists behind these campaigns are mostly interested in gaining a reaction, whether positive or negative.
Take, for instance, the Conservative strategy. Initially, the Tories were too tame with their posts, mostly targeting the older voters through Facebook. The exception to this was a comparison of Labour’s free broadband promise to dial-up internet, which, unsurprisingly, did not receive much traction.
More recently, they were criticised of editing a video of Sir Keir Starmer to make him seem unable, or unwilling, to answer Brexit-related questions. But as the old saying goes, all publicity is good publicity. The fact that so many people were sharing and commenting on the video meant that it ended up being one of the party’s most-watched. Some commentators have questioned whether it was a ‘cock-up or a conspiracy’.
It’s questionable how democratically healthy it is to strive for viral content, rather than voter education online.
In 2017, Labour were commended for an online campaign that motivated voters and avoided directly attacking Conservatives. But the days of non-adversarial and non-confrontational politics are long gone. You only have to scroll through the official Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts to get a sense of how parties feel about one another.
This election, as a whole, has become a breeding ground for conflict rather than dialogue. And social media only seems to be adding fuel to the fire. It is often difficult for floating voters to navigate the information hurtled at them on their timelines. Content from targeted Facebook ads is difficult to make sense of, especially when facts and figures are conflictingly represented online. There is also the temptation of passive media consumption, which tends to be facilitated by content that is getting shorter, sharper, and potentially much hollower – or, staying within our own echo chambers, and disengaging from meaningful and balanced political discussion.
It may be tough to quantify the impact of social media and digital campaigns, but it seems as though political parties are just desperate to grasp onto any and every tool possible to spread their message and instil doubt and resentment on the other side. One thing is for sure – polarised politics continues.