How did social media influence the general election?

John Crossley

23 Jun 2015

Facebook and Twitter made their pitch about the rising impact of social media during the election to a roomful of MPs, peers, tech influencers and myself, at Parliament's Portcullis House last week. Sceptics (including myself for fleeting moments) have questioned the overall impact social media really had, so I was keen to get some answers from the horse’s mouth – at the event hosted by The Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR). The 2015 General Election was the first in our history where social media could claim to have any clout in influencing the overall result. Yet despite those (dastardly) polls pointing towards another hung parliament, the result was one which none of the media saw coming - the first Conservative majority since John Major in 1992. My perception was the big boys in the traditional press - the Mail and the Sun - still had the final say when it came down to polling day. Well, Facebook's Government and Politics Specialist Elizabeth Linder, and Twitter's UK Head of News & Government Partnerships Joanna Geary, appeared to convince the audience, and myself, otherwise. Buzzfeed’s Emily Ashton chaired a lively discussion, and we also heard some words from Chi Onwurah MP, and the newly-elected Matt Warman MP (of Daily Telegraph technology fame). Politicians have finally woken up to the potential for social media to connect and engage with audiences. According to Facebook, politics was the most talked about topic on the social network last year. During the campaign, there were 78 million interactions between 12 million people on the subject. That itself holds huge value. On top of this, a study (published in March) from Twitter found more than a third (34%) of 18 to 34-year-olds changed their vote or party after seeing information on the site. It also claimed to show 47% of the same group had reconsidered their views. The figures could be pretty window dressing, but the impact is undeniable. Major policy announcements are carried out in less than 140 characters. A job normally reserved for the humble press officer, this is now done through the likes of David Cameron's (carefully stage-managed) Twitter profile. Other big trends included candidates hosting virtual Q&A surgeries, and using long-form written posts on Facebook to get their exact message out. But clearly the big winners on the social battleground were the SNP. Every one of their 56 MPs is on Twitter, and Nicola Sturgeon demonstrated a masterclass in how to engage with users, by actually responding to messages and coming across all non-politician-like. Like an actual human being, would you believe it? Geary spoke of Twitter being like a town square - you walk down there, see what’s happening and take part in the discussions going on. But she said with each different community, it creates a different town square. There's square which politicians and the media are obsessed with – and it’s the very one they sit in. Is anyone else actually taking part in this discussion? This could be the reason why Twitter is often described as an ‘echo chamber’ – essentially this group is just politicians, columnists, spin doctors and media-types bouncing each others comments between each other, and there is no real value in the conversation. But it means there is a whole other set of ‘town squares’ operating on a very local level, and tapping into these communities is what the Tories did very well, according to Geary. She produced the following quote from Carl Miller at Demos: “Conservatives defending key marginal seats are as active on Twitter as their Labour counterparts – and are much more popular.” Geary said the party was doing a much better job at engaging in people at a very local level – an issue that matters to nearly two-thirds of the electorate, according to Twitter’s study. In marginal seats they totally nailed getting that super local message across in a friendly and engaging manner, more so than their Labour rivals who tended to be more focused on the national issues. They were in that local “town square”, where votes mattered. On top of this, the party had grasped how to get the most out of paid social as well. So, did it influence the result of this election? Absolutely yes, but to what extent we still don’t know. What really matters is users are waking up to the potential for social media to foster debate and as a platform to air their views. They can also engage with politicians directly – and it makes democracy much more accessible. The big question that remains unanswered is if social media will topple the traditional media in influence terms by the next general election, due to be held in 2020. Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts and tweet me @jcrossley1.