Can social media influence voters?

One of the interesting debates is whether social media can be harnessed by a political party to get out the vote, or simply used to gain a better understanding of the public it intends to serve.

This BBC film gives the terrific anecdote of the anecdotes. In 2010, the British election debates led to much criticism on Twitter of party leaders using slightly cloying anecdotes about their meetings with various members of the public.

By the time of the next debate, these anecdotes were conspicuous for their absence.

It’s clear that social media can assay the national mood – perhaps Michael Gove’s removal from his post as Education Secretary amounts to an admission that public outcry is more public, more of a slow drip and more damaging than ever.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election campaign leader, told the Guardian he expects the Conservative campaign in 2015 to be about smear and fear.

If any of the parties do fight a nasty campaign it will be fun to see how that plays out on social media. Organisations like FactCheck, PolitiFact and Full Fact are well suited to social media. Trust is valued online as it is in the political sphere.

The ability of the populace to post their views, even to quickly throw together images and quotes, villifying politicians that have twisted the truth, has arguably hamstrung politics, producing the line-toeing displays we increasingly see from front bench politicians. This has arguably played into the hands of parties on the right, such as UKIP and Front Nationale.

Voters increasingly trust their online communities over other sources such as the national press.

Additionally, many smaller political groups are using social media to organise volunteers. In this sense, social networks are providing valuable infrastructure for political activity.

Beware the echo chamber

Although social media offers scale of interaction with the electorate, grabbing attention can be difficult. It’s also the case that the interconnected nature of friend and influence groups means political views can be reiterated and reinforced in smaller circles, a sort of echo chamber.

Danah Boyd writes:

It was the echo chambers of the blogosphere in 2004 that convinced mass media that Howard Dean had more traction in the U.S. presidential campaign than he did.

It’s easy to see a UK equivalent, with the UKIP backlash particularly vociferous on Twitter (traditionally the haunt of the democrat and the liberal) and yet not stopping a great performance by UKIP in the European elections of 2014.

Let’s face it, many voters, especially older generations, simply aren’t on social networks and yet they are more likely to vote.

The minority is no longer isolated

Some suggest that social media has led to stronger expression of alternative views (to those of the traditional press) as people no longer feel isolated. They are able to engage in discourse quickly and effectively using Twitter or Facebook.

See Cri Malaspina’s content analysis from the Italian 2013 elections where Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian, won one in four votes on the back of social media sentiment.

It’s a big data problem

Harper Reed, CTO for Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2012, told Bloomberg that merely copybooking the 2012 playbook would result in failure for parties in 2016.

Will voters respond as well to email as they did in 2012, when Harper’s team used it as a killer fundraising tool? What mobile technologies will be more prominent? With the penetration of smartphones increasing rapidly in these four years, social media could be even more important.

How will parties build out databases successfully, including social data, not just telephone numbers, postal and email addresses? If this is to be done, voter outreach on social media becomes a big data problem, not just PR.

The 2016 presidential election candidates will undoubtedly be aided by the sort of big data analysis platform that Civis Analytics builds. The firm specialises in voter targeting models and resource optimization and was behind the 2012 Obama analysis.

What do you think?

Social media isn’t going to replace direct mail or the telephone just yet when it comes to getting the vote out, but it is certainly influencing what happens in the ballot box nonetheless.

These are just a few points to start off this interesting discussion. Please add your own below…