One of the many predications given ahead of the 2015 general election was that it was going to be ‘the social media election.’
Similar predictions were made in 2010, but in hindsight it really wasn’t. But what about 2015?
I suppose it depends how you define what it would it would take to remember a general election by the impact social media had on it. So my conclusion is that no, rather like 2010, social media did not define the general election. Therefore 2015 was not the social media election.
That’s not to say it didn’t have a much bigger impact on the journalism surrounding the 2015 general election than ever before. It certainly did. In 2010, Twitter was still treated with suspicion or outright contempt by many journalists. Facebook was still, for the majority of journalists, a personal, rather than professional, space.
In 2015, social media sat at the centre of media coverage of the general election. Sky News built a whole part of its election website around social discussion, breaking out sentiment by age and sex, for example.
The Press Association ran a UK politics page for Facebook, Tweets were referenced in content everywhere, and politicians and political parties were alert to the fact any post from them on social media was likely to attract mainstream media attention quickly.
But that’s where I think it fell down somewhat. Social media, for many politicians, remains a broadcast tool. It might have sat at the heart of election strategies – the Tories are rumoured to have spent fortunes on Facebook advertising – but the communication was very much one way.
And until that changes, I struggle to see how we can ever have a social media election – because until politicians realise that they need to have individual conversations on social media in the same way they do on the doorstep, they won’t be harnessing the power of social media properly.
To say social media is a powerful tool for change is rather like remarking that water is wet. Campaigns are won within days. The Manchester Evening News raised £1.4m in 24 hours for a burning dogs homes, thanks largely to people sharing on social media. Petitions, such as the one for a parliamentary debate on Hillsborough, reach their 100,000 target in days thanks to sharing on Twitter. Yet faced with the potential to connect with a large number of people, politicians seem determined to keep just shouting at them.
Indeed, at times Twitter’s best attribute to politicians has seemed to be the 140-character limit, providing politicians with a way to say as little as possible, but still get their message across. It’s not supposed to be like that.
There are exceptions, of course. Nicola Sturgeon has been widely acclaimed for her use of Twitter. She’s far from the first to be good on social. Ed Balls used to be active too, once giving me directions to a football ground. So to was John Prescott, once balling me out for disagreeing with him. But for every great political Twitter account i mention to someone, I invariably get back the question: “Ah, but do you know if s/he writes it themselves?”
The answer is that I don’t know. But what I do know is that the big political parties treat social media the same way they do every other form of communication: The more people you can reach for the least amount of effort, the better.
And while that approach works when determining the merit of a wrap in a local newspaper, or buying Facebook advertising, it misses the point of social media entirely. And as a result, the likes of Sturgeon are few and far between.
This isn’t a ‘let’s bash social media’ blog. It’s hopefully a ‘let’s get real’ blog post. Social media works so well because it fits into people’s lives, and reflects the real world too. Treat Twitter like you would going into the pub is a common piece of advice. Reply to people, and listen to them, is another. Be useful is another. The political parties miss all of these points but probably pat themselves on the back for the reach of a Tweet or Facebook post.
An MP last autumn boasted to me: “My local newspaper only sells 10,000 copies a week but a post on my Facebook people can be seen by 40,000 people. What do you think of that?”
In hindsight, my reply should have been: “I think you should focus on talking to people locally, rather than getting carried away by meaningless global numbers, you nugget.” Sadly, it wasn’t.
Social media does have the power to determine an election in the future, in a far more democratic way than any traditional media outlet could ever claim to do (and let’s be frank, has The Sun really ever won an election, or has it just always ensured it’s backing the winning horse?)
The right party, with the right message, could do exactly what Barack Obama did a decade ago and bring together many people and secure a victory against the odds. But do so requires people to buy into the message, and buy into the person presenting that message. For that to happen requires personal relationships and engagement on social media.
As any newsroom social media editor will tell you, social media isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work to maintain relationships. But if you get it right, the rewards are there.
The social media election can happen – but only once politicians start treating networks as more than just an extra channel for an off-the-shelf party political broadcast.
So succeed at social, you need to succeed at being human. That’s where I fear our mainstream parties go wrong.