By Peter Springett | @PeterSpringett
As the dust settles on the UK general election, analysts are queuing up to describe social media’s impact on voting behaviour. The press, especially the right-wing tabloids have traditionally claimed the credit for swaying public opinion. But as political parties refine their social campaign strategies, it’s becoming clear that more of us are making up our minds on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
David Yelland, editor of the Sun newspaper from 1998 to 2003 put it neatly on the BBC news last weekend: “Nobody under 35 reads newspapers anymore, except for the Daily Mail online and even then, it won’t be political coverage.”
Two things are happening here. Firstly, an increase in the number of younger people voting, especially those who failed to turn up for the Brexit referendum. They are more likely to consume news that is shared by their friends than mainstream media channels. This makes it more important for political parties to target the most influential accounts on social media and encourage them to share favourable content.
Secondly, the number of traditional newspaper readers – including those who subscribe online – is diminishing rapidly. If you bought your first iPhone ten years ago as a 25 year old, you’re not going to suddenly abandon digital news once you hit your late 30s. Instead you’ll continue to use your preferred mix of devices, channels and content as they evolve. The days of print are over.
An upbeat approach that binds communities
Look more closely at the behaviour of the two main parties on social and two trends stand out: The impact of positive messages versus negative messages, and whether to attack a swing constituency or protect safe seats. By all accounts, the Conservative party focused on fear, targeting citizens in the north of England with voter suppression ads that attacked Jeremy Corbyn.
This ad hominem approach contrasted with more upbeat messages from Labour. Talking to the Guardian this weekend, Jag Singh, the founder of MessageSpace, put it neatly: ““It’s about building a movement, and social media can provide the glue for people to bind together. If your strategy is to poke holes in the other side you don’t evoke that emotion of togetherness which is an important factor in getting people to vote.”
It’s a view shared by Tim Hughes, co-founder, Digital Leadership Associates: “In any community setting fear and uncertainty may have a short-term impact. But positive messages offer a more sustainable and strategic route for any movement that wants to attract voters. To borrow that old media saying, ‘It’s the meme wot won it’.”
A high-water mark for the tabloids?
So, is the influence of the tabloids over? It’s only a year since the Brexit vote and according to Yelland: “Brexit was a high-water mark for the influence of the tabloids. The editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail, and their proprietors don’t think Brexit would have happened without them and I think they are right.”
Will the tabloids moderate their tone next time round? We’ll get a chance to see very soon with an election before the end of 2017 odds-on at most bookmakers. It’s also going to be an opportunity for the parties to double down on the data gathered from last Thursday’s plebiscite. And the press? As Yelland reminds us, agility is not the greatest strength of the tabloids, especially the Sun and the Daily Mail. If opinion shifts in favour of a softer Brexit or a more ‘caring and sharing’ Conservatism, “the only people who cannot move are those two newspapers.”
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