The first social media election?

The parties found a campaigning edge on the new political battleground of social media, but too many tweets don’t make #GE2015 the first social media election, as Carl Miller and Raphael Hogarth explain.

Did it happen? Was 2015 the year when politics – the way of watches, of television, taxes and music – went digital? Was this the first time that the digital world was central, even decisive in the joust for power? Was 2015 the first social media election?

Journalists, commentators and political watchers had all seen what had happened in America during the Obama elections. In 2008, the brilliant insurgent campaign was carried along by a breathless digital surge; in 2012 came the slick, assured, ambitious campaign of a team confident that they had rewritten the rulebook for winning elections.

Their confidence was not unfounded. In the course of that campaign, Obama gained 23 million Twitter followers and 45 million Facebook likes, and used this massive digital following to organise over 300,000 offline events and raise $690 million, over half his total. Since then, campaigns around the world followed suit. During the Indian election in 2014, Narendra Modi enlisted 2.2 million volunteers using online tools, and engaged with hundreds of thousands of people to crowd-source his party’s manifesto.

So when Britain’s turn came, the big question was what would happen here. The political world, keenly noting Obama’s attention, jolted into gear and dedicated more effort to using digital means than ever before. MPs jumped onto digital channels as a new direct link with voters: 80 per cent were regularly tweeting, and over half regularly used Facebook too.

There was a faint Californian atmosphere within central party HQs as they imported digital experts, advertisers and activists to capture some of the American magic. Former Obama aide Jim Messina was strategising for the Tories, while Labour brought home Matthew McGregor, the ‘backroom Brit’ who worked as Obama’s digital whizz in 2012. Craig Elder from Blue Rubicon headed up the Conservative digital campaign; Blue State Digital’s Katharine Segal took the reins for Labour.

As with any digital campaign, there were four pillars to the digital electoral strategy: message, growth, mobilising and fundraising. First, digital messaging was used to throw out the party’s pitch to the undecided and leaning voters, trying to get them onside, and (if judged onside) making sure they voted on the day. Next, growing the party’s digital presence itself – bringing these people into the party’s digital ambit as followers, likes, email addresses and accounts. And finally, mobilising and fundraising: galvanising and leveraging these online supporters to convert them into volunteers on the ground, phalanxes on the phone-banks, and donors.

Different digital channels certainly played different roles in these efforts. Facebook has shaken up the advertising industry (and makes so much money) because adverts can be fired at carefully sculpted, finely distinguished online audiences. This has radical implications for political campaigning. Male 35–44-year-olds in Dudley South who use Facebook predominantly on their smartphones, are not in a relationship, do like the Facebook page of the opposing party, have a postcode which makes them likely to live in rented accommodation – with an interest in rare Elizabethan books and a penchant for Angry Birds – could suddenly receive a carefully crafted (and exquisitely analysed) message judged to speak to their needs, play to their interests and answers their concerns, different from what they’d see on television or billboards.

Twitter was used by the parties to reach the press and the commentariat, and scanned to find their opponents’ missteps for tip-offs to the papers. And whilst very Web 1.0, email addresses remained the holy grail of political fundraising and volunteer mobilisation. A relentless email deluge was the main way that the parties raised money – irritating to the many who received them, but also effective. Labour reported membership increases of over 8,000 from their email programme, and both Parties recruited more than 100,000 volunteers online.

Campaigns – like wars – are secretive, and we can’t know for sure all the details of how each of the parties exploited these channels, nor how big a difference it made. But, certainly, digital campaigning was more sophisticated than ever before, and it was also an area of genuine strategic difference between the campaigns. All campaigns seek edges, and the digital battleground was where one was found.

Labour sought to use their advantage of numbers, to turn their many follower-volunteers into so-called ‘brand advocates’. This was especially clear on Twitter, which we at CASM were busily researching. We crunched the 10 million tweets of the ten weeks of the campaign that mentioned any candidate, investigating who retweeted or mentioned whom. When you cluster these on a map (so ardent retweeters and mentioners are closer together), you see the highly partisan ways that political information flowed through that platform. There’s the Labour constellation at the top – larger, louder and brighter than any other.

The Tories sought to use their financial advantage, especially through digital advertising. They started early, and they went big. The Tory digital team began working in Autumn 2013, and one leak showed a bill from Facebook of £122,814 for September 2014 (they probably spent over £1 million on Facebook ads overall).

They also spent over £3,000 in an individual constituency campaign that month, suggesting the Conservatives were investing heavily in highly targeted constituency online campaigns long before the election. Labour joined the digital fight much later, and with significantly fewer resources, rumoured to be spending a fraction of what the Conservatives could manage on Facebook – though they did manage to reach almost 16 million people on Facebook in their final-month push.

So this election saw sophisticated, multi-channel techniques, more resources and effort than ever before, and genuine difference between the two main campaigns. Clearly, digital campaigning mattered more in this election than any other. The Labour Party released figures showing a 1100 per cent increase in money raised (£3.1million) and a 1390 per cent increase in online volunteer pledges (over 100,000). The Conservative Party figures, as yet unreleased, will no doubt show similar explosive rises, and perhaps even higher.

But none of this means that 2015 was the social media election, nor that this British election, despite all the same technologies and techniques, was anything like its American predecessors.

Technologies, tactics, tools – indeed, campaigns – don’t make elections digital elections, nor generally win them; candidates do. Digital means weren’t just a way of selling Obama; they were part of what he was selling, the kind of candidate that he wanted to be: a future-facing, hip, digital President comfortable with the organic spontaneity, memes and virals of the networked age. To use that slightly tired formulation beloved of media studies scholars: for Obama, the medium was the message.

For Miliband and Cameron, the digital world remained, simply, a medium. Social media were used as a tool to reach people, raise money and get the vote out. ‘Digital’ was also a policy area, of course – an important part of the economy, and a new opportunity to deliver cheaper, more efficient government. But it wasn’t a part of who they were, or what they represented. #GE2015 was a humbler, more instrumental re-imagining of digital politics – and no mere instrument has ever won, or made, a General Election. It takes politicians to do that.