How big a role is social media playing in the 2019 general election campaign?

I’ve been following the 2019 general election campaign with my day job hat on – I’m a social media manager – and I’ve come to two inescapable conclusions. Firstly, social media is playing an unprecedented role in this election. And secondly, the Conservative Party is streets ahead of the other major parties in its use of social media. Here’s why.

Full disclosure here. I’m not a Tory voter. And this post isn’t an anti-Tory hack job in disguise. But when I look online, there’s a real lack of informed opinion on the impact of social media on this election.

Most people fall into one of two camps. Either social media is irrelevant, ineffective noise. Or it’s the root of all evil.

Of course, the truth is somewhere in between. But forget all the denial and the hand-wringing for now. Here’s my professional opinion of what’s actually happening – and how (and why) it works.

Before I start, let me say that I don’t know exactly what the Tories’ social media strategy is. But I’ve pieced this together from actual statements, observations and my own knowledge and experience.

In a nutshell, the Tories are on a completely different level to both Labour and the Lib Dems. They understand how to use social media – and in particular targeted ads, media manipulation and ‘dark social’ – far better than their rivals.

Now let’s unpack the detail one layer at a time.

Why is targeted advertising important?

Let’s start with targeted ads. We all know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But the reality is the Conseravtives still lean heavily on personal profiling and paid ads, particularly targeting floating voters in marginal seats.

How can they still do this? Easy – because it’s legal.

Profiling goes way beyond the information you provide in your Facebook profile. Every action you take online helps build a detailed picture of your preferences. Do you like/share certain types of content? Do you stop to read a post or watch a video? Where does your phone’s GPS say you are?

This means ads can target voters in marginal constituencies. Algorithms can infer whether you are a committed Tory, a committed Labour voter or – most valuably – an ‘undecided’. It’s not 100% accurate, but even 50% reliability means ad budgets can be used more efficiently.

Cue a barrage of targeted ads in this closing week of the election aimed at swaying ‘undecideds’ in marginals. These appear directly in individuals’ feeds, so they’re not publicly visible. 90% of us will never see these ads, as they’re not meant for us. So we wonder what all the fuss is about.

“If I haven’t seen it, it can’t be happening”, right? Wrong.

If you’re in the target group, you might see ten or more of these every day. Vote Leave confirmed they spent around 90% of their ad budget on Facebook ads in the final week of the 2016 referendum campaign. It worked before. You can be sure the Tories are doing it now.

If you doubt whether social media ads work, ask why major brands now spend so much on this new form of advertising. The company I work for spends millions of dollars a year on social ads. We can measure the results in views, clicks, shares and other actions. And the reason it’s so powerful is that, unlike traditional ads, every action can be traced back to an individual, who can then be targeted with a follow-up ad. Or two ads. Or ten.

Social media manipulates mainstream media

Let’s talk now about how social media can manipulate mainstream journalists and the general news agenda.

We start with a tweet or a Facebook post containing fake or selectively truthful information. Maybe this comes directly from Boris Johnson’s or the Conservatives’ account. Or a ‘source’ tips off selected journalists with a link or a direct message.

Other accounts then share these messages to add weight and credibility. These may be genuine people. Equally likely, they are bots or ‘sock puppets’. (These are people who are paid to look like Joe Public but are in effect no more than propaganda megaphones.)

Often these messages are straight copy-and-paste jobs, with identical text appearing on multiple accounts. Here’s an example of systematic disinformation from yesterday.

And here’s another one. Note how the text across these three tweets is not just similar but identical.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Sock puppet or bot accounts often have relatively few followers. So they can’t actually reach that many people, right? Wrong.

It’s not about how many people you reach or target. It’s about how influential those people are. If you address a tweet at, say, a serious, neutral journalist such as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg (1.1m Twitter followers) or ITV’s Robert Peston (1m), a willing right-winger such as Julia Hartley-Brewer (200k), or even a celebrity like former cricket star Kevin Pietersen (3.9m) and they retweet it, it drives serious reach.

Hundreds of people who follow them then retweet their tweets. Before you know it, a tweet by a sock puppet with 70 followers has reached five million people.

Even if they later discover the tweet contains fake info and tweet out an apology or retraction – as both Kuenssberg and Peston did yesterday and Pietersen today – the damage is done. The sock puppets amplify their original tweet, and that becomes the story.

So what yesterday should have been a furore about Boris Johnson’s lack of empathy for an ill four-year-old and snatching a journalist’s phone becomes a story about anti-Tories staging a faked photo. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lie.  (The original source of the faking allegation has already confirmed it was untrue, claiming her account was hacked.) As long as it becomes the story of the day, that’s what matters. So instead of the lead story painting Prime Minister in a negative light, a fabricated attack damning left-wing interests is the headline.

This is classic influencer marketing. You don’t need to build millions of followers. Just leverage those who already have. And, better still, if they’re perceived as neutral, the message carries greater weight because it’s ‘unbiased’.

Another important note here. When people share fake messages widely, they tend to rise to the top of Google search results. Fake news quickly trumps real news. So if someone does a quick search to verify whether what they’ve just read is true, a quick search floods their results with these fake posts. So we assume they’re true. They must be, right? Wrong (or, at least, not necessarily right).

People fall for this deception time and time again. I have too sometimes. We are conditioned to trust what Google tells us – especially when it apparently confirms what we want to be true.

Psychologists have a term for this: ‘confirmation bias’. We’re more inclined to believe claims that reinforce our existing views. People like to think they’re right and will self-rationalise even the most ridiculous things sometimes. We all do it. But some of us are less aware of it than others.

‘Dark social’ – the unseen power of what lies beneath

Now let’s move on to ‘dark social’.

What’s that, you ask? Dark social refers to non-public areas of social media where only selected users can see content. Facebook groups, for instance. Let’s talk about these.

All over Facebook there are local groups covering specific towns. Many have 20k-50k followers. They’re quite big. They’re populated by ‘people like us’ – family, friends, neighbours – sharing info about local events, complaining about road closures, and, yes, talking politics.

We feel connected to the people in this groups, so they are by their nature influential. We listen to them; at some level we trust them. So what happens when a political party targets a tweet at, say, an admin of a local group in a marginal constituency, which they then share in the group?

Boom! An instant audience of tens of thousands of people, highly targeted by location, and promoted by someone that group members are inclined to trust. Again, a supremely effective use of influencer marketing. And you can only see it at work if you’re in one of these groups.

Conservatives vs Labour and Lib Dems

The Tories are doing all of the above in this election campaign. They’re doing it very effectively. And this allows them to use their already huge social media budgets incredibly efficiently. In fact, most of the above doesn’t even require paid ads – just social media savvy.

When I look at what Labour and the Liberal Democrats are doing, I see an approach that is much more traditional ‘old media’. They release PR-style statements, sometimes through the party accounts, sometimes through personal ones such as Jeremy Corbyn’s.

There’s nothing wrong with that. After all Corbyn has 2.3 million followers. But who are those 2.3m people? Mostly they’re dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters. How many are floating voters? Not many, I’d bet. So essentially you’re preaching to the converted. That’s not how you sway undecided voters who are critical to winning a close election.

A traditional PR approach like this is like firing a blunderbuss. You’ll hit some of the people you’re targeting, but you’ll miss most of them and waste a lot of time talking to people you don’t need to talk to.

Effective use of social media is all about targeting. And I don’t see either Labour or the Lib Dems doing enough of it. Instead they are relying on organic reach. Which is great if you want to talk to your supporters, but doesn’t effectively influence floating voters.

They’re outgunned in terms of funding and they’re outsmarted in terms of social media usage. And that adds up to a war that Boris Johnson’s opponents are losing miserably.

Which is kind of ironic, don’t you think, when the Tories are painted as the party of older, non-social media users? And yet they are doing the best job here. They have worked out how to manipulate both traditional and social media, and they’re doing it ruthlessly.

So what?

I’m not going to say that social media will be the biggest factor in deciding this general election. But in an election where a few thousand votes in a few marginal constituencies could make all the difference on Thursday night, there’s no doubt that any advantage on the social media battlefield is significant.

Barack Obama gained a critical advantage in the 2008 Presidential election by leveraging Facebook for his fundraising efforts. Donald Trump did the same in 2016 with a barrage of misinformation, distorted facts and knowing lies. In 2019, the Conservative Party is winning through their ability to influence both voters and the news agenda. And – as far as I can tell – it may be unethical but it’s not illegal. Most of us don’t even realise most of what’s going on. And therein lies the problem.

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