Eight things we learned from the ‘social media’ election

The General Election was – most people agree – a bit of a surprise. First off, the Conservative party defied the polls to win a slim majority in the Commons. Second, a fair few analysts who had talked of this being a ‘social media’ election were left scratching their heads…

Before the 7th of May we had headlines like this: “2015 – The first general election dominated by social media” Clearly PR, October.

Afterwards, they were more like this: “Election 2015: It wasn’t social media wot won it” BBC, May 2015.

So what happened? In the wake of the election we held a lunchtime session for staff to chew over this point and discuss what learning there might be about social media and electioneering. I’ve distilled the best points to share here…

1. Social media made it easy for people to encourage others to vote…

Social media made it very easy to take part in the election – in the sense that you could tweet or share information. We felt this worked best in simple ways, like sharing the fact that you had voted.

Facebook window with comment showing 'I'm a voter feature'

The I’m a voter on Facebook feature.

Both Facebook and Twitter added some election-specific features, including Facebook’s I’m a voter tool and Twitter’s logo hashtags. These superficial touches helped people talk about the election. But…

2. Social media didn’t win the election

Yep, we liked to see politicians on Twitter – but what could they say there that would make us think differently? As one of us said, “Most people have made up their minds anyway – and it’s hard to see what impact what I saw on social media would have.” Given the way the campaigns used social media this may not have been surprising. As the Guardian puts it…

“The social media strategies of David Cameron, or Ed Miliband and their respective political parties follow roughly the same course: 1) routine update of their campaign day, 2) what they’ve achieved to date, or will do, and 3) describing what a disaster the other political party will be.”

3. There’s plenty of room for campaigns to get better at using the social web

While it was clear that politicians were now using social media as part of their campaigns, the role social media plays seems mixed, at best. What we were definite on, though, was that social networks and other social tools can be an important part of a campaign. We talked about the important influence that the people we know in our lives have on our political opinions. Social media has the power – in the hands of the people we listen to, our friends, our family – to have a huge impact on how we vote. But that’s different to a politician on Twitter telling us to vote for them.

4. If it was Twitter vs Facebook, Facebook was always going to win

We discussed the two ‘big’ social media platforms and the role that they played during the election. It was interesting that while Twitter may have played a part in the debates and in the conversation about key election events, it was much more likely that Facebook had a more important role. Twitter, after all, is predominantly used by only a relatively small part of the population, while Facebook has much more. See the slide below, taken from IpsosMori.

Survey graph shows Facebook is much more popular than other social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn

Slide taken from Ben Page at Ipsos Mori

5. Twitter can be brilliant… at making politicians look bad

If you’re looking for the real role of Twitter in the election then perhaps it’s best to concentrate on how it hurt rather than helped the candidates. For some of the damage, collateral or otherwise, check out the tweets about #edstone or David Cameron’s erm… career-defining moment.

Twitter users played their part in lampooning politician’s mistakes, often to hilarious effect. This may have created a problem for the parties. Politicians have taken -often successfully to Twitter – but as we point out above it isn’t where most of the electorate spend their time online. That doesn’t mean politicians should steer clear of Twitter, of course, but beware a campaign that concentrates on a social tool that is dominated by a very small part of the overall electorate.

6. Might it have been data wot won it?

The real story might have been that data played a more important role than social media on the outcome of the election. There were reports that smart campaigns used data intelligently to target the right voters with the right messages. It appears that some politicians were able to use social media in a targeted way with the help of polling data and detailed understanding of how key voters could be influenced. This combination of data and social media, with more traditional campaigning techniques will surely develop still further in the next few years.

7. Video was vital

From Russell Brand’s interview with Ed Miliband to people watching the debates, the way used video was one of the biggest – and for Public-i – one of the most important changes in the election.

That change is mostly in the growth of ‘on demand’ watching. Where once we’d huddle round the TV to watch the party political broadcasts, we now use YouTube or the iPlayer to catch up on what’s happened. One of the next changes, of course, will be in how streaming technology – like Twitter’s Periscope – can be used as an election tool.

8. Beware the bubble

An irony of social media is that if it isn’t used smartly it can create a bubble for us all, including politicians. We feel like the world is the way we want it to be simply because those we share space with online are the people who agree with us. For those who voted differently to the result, Friday morning might have come as something of a shock, particularly given how the opinion polls had predicted a hung parliament. For some there’s something comforting about surrounding yourself in those who agree with you – but for our political parties it carries an obvious risk.



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