16.04.2015 How politicians are using social media

Commentators have suggested the 2015 UK general election will be the first to be significantly determined by social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. With election fever in full swing here in the UK and presidential candidates beginning to emerge for the 2016 US Elections, we take a look at the use of social media in political campaigns.

Last Sunday Hillary Clinton announced her presidential candidacy via a pre-recorded video on YouTube and Twitter. The video was fast-paced, upbeat and slickly produced. It presented a positive and inclusive image of everyday Americans, transgressing gender, age, race and sexuality.

The video, and her subsequent post on Twitter announcing her candidacy outlines Clinton’s approach to her campaign – to reinvent her image as a humble, populist leader.

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For those who followed Clinton’s previous campaign in 2008, this is an obvious turnaround. Compared to her main rival at the time, Barack Obama, critics described her as distant and aloof with an inability to connect with voters. She was branded ambitious and presumptive, and accused of alienating key demographics. Her emphasis on a personal approach this time is clear – she’s opted for a low-key road trip on the campaign trail instead of a chartered helicopter, which has allowed her to mingle with ordinary Americans and appear much more down-to-earth, so to speak.

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And so far the approach has paid off. Her social media presence is personable and friendly, and includes a combination of tweets from her campaign team and direct tweets from Clinton herself. Her launch video was watched over 1.8 million times within the first 12 hours of posting, and her Twitter followers have reached 3.36 million – miles ahead of her rivals.

But this isn’t to say that Clinton hasn’t come under fire with her rebrand as a modest servant of the people. She’s been accused of placing too much emphasis on her social media image, and not enough on the actual content of her campaign. Her launch video revealed nothing about the kind of leadership she intends to provide, or even her reasons for standing.

So if her approach appears to be achieving her goal of connecting with everyday Americans as far as the numbers show, does this mean her campaign message is getting across too?

She’s certainly addressing the criticisms she received in the past, but unless she places more emphasis on her key policies, there’s a chance her real campaign message might get lost behind a desire to artificially re-align her image.

Looking a little closer to home, many experts claim this will be the British election where we’ll be able to say, “it’s social that won it”. But is social media really the golden platform for politicians keen to get their message across to an increasingly disengaged population? Social media clearly provides and opportunity to reach a wider audience, but in doing so, do the real politics get lost behind the goal of projecting a certain image?

It’s clear that all parties know that they can’t ignore social media; in fact, figures uncovered earlier this year show that the Conservatives are spending £100,000 a month on Facebook alone. But how effectively are they using social channels to connect with the electorate?

Liberal Democrats have always stood out for their savvy approach to social media despite having a much smaller campaign budget than their rivals. Back in 2010, their social media strategy was hailed for outweighing Labour and the Conservatives in terms of engaging with key audiences, which was instrumental to Nick Clegg’s rising profile.

That’s not to say that social media is an easy route to popularity. David Cameron reportedly once stated how important it was for politicians to think before they tweet, yet last year he set himself up for countless mocking parodies when he posted a very serious picture of himself on Twitter apparently on the phone to Barack Obama. Comedians and famous faces were among those responding to Cameron’s tweet with their own very serious ‘phone call’ selfies.

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In fact, all three leading political parties have come under criticism during this current election period for not using social media in the right way. Although posting has been fairly regular and targeted, not one party appears to be actually responding to people properly. It only takes a quick scroll through Labour and the Conservatives Twitter and Facebook pages to see that responses to comments and tweets from the public are very thin on the ground. And although the Liberal Democrats are still faring slightly better where social conversation is concerned, Nick Clegg still only has 452 followers on Instagram, arguably one of the most popular channels for creative content. Social media is designed to accommodate and encourage engagement, not to serve as a one-way platform for a flow of broadcast-style posts. When the average UK adult spends 1.3 hours a day on social media alone, it seems surprising that not one party is using social platforms to their full potential.

In most cases though, when used in the right way a well thought-out social media strategy can be a winning formula for politicians. Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign in 2012 was attributed largely to his huge appeal through digital channels, and with 20 times more Twitter followers than rival Mitt Romney, it’s no surprise he was nicknamed ‘the social media President’.

It’s clear to see that there is certainly is a place for social media in politics. It provides a platform for politicians to connect directly with key voters, and presents a fair playing field for them to do so, irrespective of spending budgets – even if some are desperately trying to buy their online influence with big social ad budgets.

Social media allows voters to form their own views based on direct information, and arguably dampens the authority of the media – with their own agendas – to influence public opinion. But politics isn’t all about projecting an image. Increasingly, voters demand substance, and while social media provides a direct route to the electorate, it can be too easy to forget that the channel is never more important than the message.