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Social media has become a hugely influential tool in modern day marketing and advertising; however it has also left an indelible mark in the political landscape.
Okay, so it’s hardly a groundbreaking revelation that social media has been used as part of political campaigning. However, as we approach the local elections in the UK on May 5th, it’s worth having a look at how social media has been embraced by the political world and the impact it has had .
Social Media in Politics
An article in the LA Times yesterday has reignited a lingering thought in my head that politics has always tried to appeal to masses and become ‘cool’. After all, candidates proactively look for votes from constituents and have used traditional media platforms as a way of garnering interest. So it really comes as no surprise that social media was a massive hit when it came to politics.
Seema Mehta’s article focussed on what could arguably be described as the infancy of the social media/political symbiosis – Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. This was the first time we experienced politics embracing social media as a tool/platform to engage with voters during political campaigns. His tactic was so effective at the start, thanks to support built up at the grass roots level that it helped create a bandwagon effect that saw Obama secure office.
In the grand scheme of things, politicians have forever embraced new technologies to support their campaign efforts. From radio, television and the internet in general, candidates have taken to popular media as a way of announcing and promoting during their campaigns – and social media is the new kid on the block. However there is something slightly different that social media, or web 2.0, brings to the political party.
Traditional media gave politicians a platform to announce and broadcast to voters en masse and in a largely one dimensional format (I speak, you listen). It literally changed the way political figures campaigned, yet the communication between the candidate and the electorate wouldn’t exactly be what you would call dynamic. With the advent of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, politicians are not only able to announce and broadcast, they also engage, interact and reply (or their campaign team does). Social media opens up a dialogue between constituents and voters in a way like never before.
2010 UK General Election
In the UK, social media was used heavily during the 2010 general election campaigns, and straight away voters felt more involved with the emerging events and the twists and turns. Twitter was used as a way gauging support, especially during the live televised debates, and for campaigners to get messages across efficiently and effectively. The same could be said of Youtube and Facebook, where candidates have their own dedicated pages. The use of these social media platforms was an excellent way of engaging with electorate and understanding what is being said about them.
Its popularity lead to suggestions that social media could be used as a way of curing voter apathy [See: Could Social Media Cure Voter Apathy?], which isn’t an outlandish assumption given social media’s meteoritic rise around the world. However, just like with the traditional platforms, social media engagement needs to be carried out appropriately and could back fire if it isn’t. For example, the then Labour Leader Gordon Brown’s was consigned to online infamy, when his awkward video appearance led to outspoken members of his own party ridiculing it.
Yet, whilst the then Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears once said of this unfortunate online video appearance, “YouTube if you want to, but it is no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre”, it doesn’t necessarily means that she is right per se. Sure, traditional methods are used and will be used as different generations of voters acquire their information from different sources, however it doesn’t mean that social media should be overlooked. You just need to find the right balance and the right people to help with your campaigning – it certainly worked wonders for Obama.
2011 General Elections
Just as with branding [See: Social Media Marketing: Is It Worth It?], social media needs to be taken seriously as an effective method of promotion in politics. However it doesn’t mean a sole reliance, but rather a blend of traditional campaigning methods with new platforms.
The lesson of the 2010 General Elections regarding social media would have, or rather should have been learned when it comes to forthcoming local elections. Admittedly, these are on a much smaller scale, so support and campaigning, especially with social media may not be as widespread. However, if the candidates get it right, social media can and will be an unrivalled source of exposure, especially at grass roots level.