The Future of Political Engagement in a Social Media Driven World #32 #cong16

By Jenny O’Reilly.

A political campaign has two key aims - to convert ‘winnable’ voters and to get your supporters out to vote.  In trying to achieve these aims, social media is used extensively, as evidenced in the Irish and US 2016 elections.  The Irish General Election kicked off with Taoiseach Enda Kenny announcing the date of the election on Facebook and Twitter, which was in turn picked up by mainstream media.

RTE News covers Taoiseach Enda Kenny announcement of the election date.

With social media channels now firmly embedded in political campaigning, more and more resources and budgets are being invested in them.  The Obama Presidential campaigns used social media sites to mobilise donors and volunteers but panellists at the recent Social Media Week London were undecided on whether social media is an echo chamber for user’s own views or a channel for real debate on political choice.

At the time of writing, the outcome of the US election is unclear but looking to the future for the use of social media in political campaigning…

  • Twitter will be the new spin room, particularly after television debates.  New records have already been set in the US Presidential Election with increased numbers of Twitter users sharing their views in real time during the debates. With media outlets taking a ‘sentiment’ reading from social media, the immediate aftermath of a debate will continue to be as important as the debate, particularly as everyone scrambles to set out who won.
  • The power of the Facebook likes or shares will continue.  Engagement will be viewed as endorsement.  Given the power of a peer endorsement to convince an undecided voter, candidates will chase this type of engagement on social media sites.  In doing so they will have to produce content that audiences literally LIKE as Facebook, the main social media platform to connect with voters, uses engagement algorithms to determine the amount of future content that can reach your audience.
  • Social Media’s reluctance to be seen as a censor of public opinion means that political figures will continue to be seen as ‘fair game’ leaving a fine line between free speech and hate speech when it comes to personal attack.
  • According to Behaviour and Attitudes General Election 2016 exit poll, voters are split nearly 50:50 on candidate:Party in terms of what influences their voter choice.  Candidates will focus on engaging people on what they are delivering for their constituency while the Party accounts will try to drive the national messaging. There will be a rise in controversial or inane content as evidenced already in the lead enjoyed by Donald Trump ahead of Hilary Clinton in terms of Facebook page likes.  In Ireland, Gerry Adams is ahead of all political figures with posts that include photos of his breakfast, his teddy and a selfie with a goat.
  • With younger audiences taking to Snapchat, we will see more political parties trying to engage the 18-24 year olds here, while Facebook becomes the channel of choice for the over 40s.
  • There will be an increase in negative ‘attack ads’.  They may mobilise voters or alienate an already unmotivated electorate but if the UK, Irish and US elections are an indication of trends, negative ads are set to increase.
  • We were worried about the attention span of the MTV generation but there will be an increasing requirement for even shorter content soundbites for social media audiences who will make decisions in 3 seconds on whether they like it or not.  The future of political debate is under threat as political policy attract little interest unless they create content in short video soundbites with subtitles.
  • Email communication and websites will continue to play an important role in political communications, particularly as they offer more control over messaging than the social sites.

As we look to the future, one thing is clear - social media audiences are increasing and political figures need to find interesting ways to engage them.  What is not clear is the impact this engagement will have on informing voters and ultimately influencing their vote.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie