Cyber Campaign Trail

Social media has given politicians a direct line to the electorate, but who’s really doing the talking?

As the dust continues to settle between what may have been the most ill-advised snap election in history and the omni-shambles that is the current parliament, one of the most compelling conversations has been about the impact of social media on voting behaviour.

Ever since the ‘Facebook election’ of 2008 – which saw the Instagrammer-in-Chief Barack Obama romp to victory by connecting to the US electorate via social media – politicians around the globe and of all persuasions have recognised the potential gains that can be made through direct-to-electorate communications.

It wasn’t long before we could see the shameless point-scoring and self-promotion of politicians on YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and Periscope.

As surprising as it’s been to discover how adept the most unlikely people are at social media (‘angry’ Bernie Saunders and ‘let’s not let the truth get in the way of a well-timed tweet’ Trump), there’s also a barely disguisable joy in when they get it wrong – for example, Ed Balls’ tweet simply stating ‘Ed Balls’ and David Cameron (in general, but in particular) with his tweet showing him looking very serious while on the phone to President Obama.

Things took a more sinister turn during the 2016 US election, which ‘The Donald’ won amid widespread allegations of Russian interference.

Earlier this year, UK researchers discovered more than 350,000 Twitter bot accounts bound together in a network. These accounts were getting up to sorts of nefarious business such as faking follower numbers, sending spam and boosting trending topics. While Twitter is very active in combating bot accounts, these sophisticated bots were discovered accidently due to them sharing very subtle characteristics.

In the UK, the Electoral Commission (EC) oversees elections in the UK and political donations. However, their rules only cover print media and don’t extend to social media. In this year’s election, the EC found that Tories spent £1.2m on Facebook campaigns – more than seven times the £160,000 spent by Labour, with the Liberal Democrats spending just over £22,000.

Social media is now a real force in influencing voter behaviour and it’s one that people aren’t always aware of, particularly with Facebook using automation to curate our news feeds and prioritising paid-for posts.

While politicians are clear on the benefits of connecting with voters via social media, it’s safe to assume other ‘interested parties’ are too. Until the law catches up to enforce transparency, there is no way of telling who is doing the influencing.

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