Today, social media is ubiquitous, and an intrinsic part of day-to-day life. Since its emergence it has changed the way in which the world communicates and socialises. Unlike any other medium, social media is simultaneously both passive and active allowing users to produce their own output and chose what they see, while also remaining observers.
Social networking sites are the number one form of communication for millennials. Facebook is the second most popular site in the world, closely followed by Youtube (3rd) and Twitter (10th) (Alexa, 2016). The average UK adult spends 1.72 hours a day social networking (Mander, 2015), significantly more time is spend on digital media than offline media (Warc, 2015). Since the invention of social media, journalism has changed more rapidly than any other global industry.
The extent to which social media is useful as a campaign tool is still somewhat unclear – as it varies tremendously between various demographics and within different countries. In 2008, Barack Obama completely revolutionised campaigning by his use of digital resources and social media in the American Presidential election. Since, candidates have relied on social media to connect with the electorate more and more. The UK 2015 general election was dubbed the first ‘Twitter Election’ (Burnap, 2015) as millions shared their views on Twitter. In India, the success of the BJP party in the 2014 general election was largely attributed to their social media presence. Within student unions globally, social media is the number one campaign tool during elections – often candidates exclusively relying on this to become elected.
As more ‘digital natives’ – that is people who grew up with the internet and social media – reach voting age the use of social media as a campaign tool is only set to increase. As 80% of Millennials use Facebook to find news (American Pres Institute, 2015) social media provides opportunities for users to actively engage with other members of they electorate and their leaders. Half of under-35s use Twitter and Facebook to access political news, this has doubled in the last four years (Newman, 2015).
Politicians are increasingly relying on social media as a quick, cheap and easy form of communication. The extent to which it is useful as a campaign tool for politicians works two-fold. They can rely on it to communicate and campaign with the electorate and two they can use it to gage public opinion about elections. The forecasting industry is increasingly reliant on Twitter to predict election outcomes (Burnap, 2015) and a recent study by Twitter (2015) showed that 34% of 18-34 year old have changed their vote due to something they have seen on Twitter, and a further 47% have changed their views on a political issue due to something they have read on the social network. 45% said they had become interested in a political cause because of something they learned on Twitter and 37% said they use the site to actively seek out information about politics (Hobbs, 2015). Pew Research (2015) shows that 66% of social media users actively engage in political activism online.
Social media has limited effects on changing voters opinions – rather a greater effect on political engagement. It is an important campaign tool, but it must be used in corporation with traditional forms of media. It is difficult to distinguish between whether activity on social media is the causation of political direction or simply mirroring what happens in a wider context.
What role does traditional media play?
Social media is being used increasingly to predict election results. In the run up to the UK 2015 general election, analysts were ‘certain’ the volume of tweets and mentions of MPs would shape the overall result (Hobbs, 2015).
The distinctions between ‘traditional media’ (TV, radio, newspapers) and social media is becoming more blurred due to the emergence of new digital players in the market such as VICE, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. These websites – increasingly growing in readership are fuelled by user generated content and increasingly shaping the way traditional media works. Traditional media outlets such as the Independent (i100) and the Trinity Mirror (UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d) are increasingly producing digital media sites that mimics the likes of Buzzfeed. These brands are powered by ‘virality’ and ‘shares’ hence use social media as a platform to gather their audiences. They have redefined journalism as a medium and have pioneered the use of new formats of imagery such as vines, gifs, listicles and boos.
While it is undeniable that social media’s presence is ever increasing – the role of traditional media still holds strong in the UK and US. Newspapers have a tremendous effect on shaping the election result in the UK. For example – since 1979 every Prime Ministerial candidate backed by Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun has won the election (Worral, 2015). During the 2015 UK general election, 62% of people claimed the TV debates has influenced their vote, whereas only 11% said the same for social media (Parsons, 2013). During the 3rd April leaders debate in the UK, 1.5million tweets were sent – however five times that number of people tuned in to watch the broadcast. Traditional media still dominates.
What would Lazersfeld say about Facebook?
Social media recreates dialogues and online interactions. It has the power to entirely recreate political communications. If used effectively, social media has the power to place political messaging away from mass media model and into peer-to-peer dialogue. Lazersfeld’s and Katz limited effect model (1955) proposed a two-step model of communication where opinions are not formed through interaction with mass media but instead through individual’s interactions with ‘opinion leaders’ from the same or similar demographics as them. Writing in the 1950s, the internet was yet to be invented, let alone social networking sites. However, Lazersfeld’s words ring truer now than ever. Today, opinion leaders can be seen on social networks – such as family, friends and colleagues or people with shared interests. Social media also allows ideas to amplify through sharing allowing each person to become and opinion leader through involvement such as commenting, liking, replying and sharing. At ‘two degree of separation’ on Facebook (in effect, friends of friends) Facebook users have the potential to reach an average of 156,569 – according to a study by The Pew Center. They found that the most influential people, so-called ‘power users’ could reach nearly 8 million people, with a median reach of 31,170 people (Hampton et al., 2012).
According to Southern (2015) the actors which have the most influence on their friends – in effect opinion leaders – are also the most likely to benefit from online campaigning. Hence it can be deducted that by reaching those influential within communities, social media can be a very useful campaign tool.
There is also extensive research to show a strong positive correlation between high levels of activity on Facebook and involvement in political life – such as attending rallies. Those who use Facebook heavily are much more likely to try to influence someone they know to vote for a specific party or candidate – or to vote generally (Hampton et al., 2012).
In the 2012 US Presidential election, at least 300,000 Facebook users voted because they saw on Facebook that their friends had voted (Nature, 2012). 30% of online users reported that they were urged to vote on social media, and 20% said they actively used the site to encourage other to vote (Rutledge, 2013). Hows change their political views because of what they see online. Rather, social networks are more useful as a tool to promote political participation and cause people to vote – rather than changing who they are voting for.
A 2012 study by Nature suggested that what users saw on their Facebook could significantly influence their voting pattern. The study found that certain messages increased turnout by as much as 340,000 in the 2012 midterms.
US Elections since 2008; how Obama revolutionised campaigning.
In the US, voters aged 18-29 make up 21% of the population (Sites.jcu.edu, 2014) and with youth voting on the rise it’s not surprising that candidates in the US are increasingly relying on social media to reach out to the group who are most active on it.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama revolutionised campaigning, by crowdfunding his campaign and utilising social media as a resource to perform. The Obama campaign produced 2000 official videos, which were viewed more than 80 million times on YoutTube (Lutz, 2009).
Barack Obama has been dubbed the ‘social media’ president (Katz, 2013). His ‘victory tweet’ in 2012 was the most retweeted picture in history at the time. He, unlike any politician before him understand the importance of the internet to connect to people – especially young voters – and it was a huge part of his campaign to President. Since he has done Reddit ‘AMAs’ (Obama, 2012) and starred in interviews with Buzzfeed (2015) and Funny or Die’s ‘Between Two Ferns’ (Galifianakis, 2014) where he has used new digital media to promote engagement.
During his Reddit ‘AMA’ Obama said “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.” (2012). The internet can be a ‘powerful tool in the hands of citizens seeking to hold governments to account (Mackinnon, 2012). Hence it is a very useful campaign tool once elected to help promote causes and in particular encourage political participation – but there are limitations on its use as a tool to get elected.
Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, before the invention of the smartphone and briefly after the launch on Twitter. During his election campaign in 2008 there were 37% of american adults on social media, by 2012 there were 69%. He was the first President to truly understand digital campaigning using the internet to create a brand and sense of connection with the electorate
In the 2012 Presidential Election Obama spend 10 times more than his opponent, Mitt Romney on digital campaigning. He also received twice as many ‘likes’ to his Facebook page and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets. Obama’s reach was far superior. Obama also revolutionised other aspects, such as crowd-funding his campaign.
The 2016 election has been the election which will be more influence by social media than ever before (Rossi, 2016). As since 2012, the number of Twitter users has almost doubled and the number of active Instagram users has tripled.
The use of social media as a campaign tool in the US Presidential elections can already be seen. Hilary Clinton has a strong presence across social media sites and has more than one million likes on Facebook and over four million followers on Twitter and 171,824 followers on LinkedIn. She has also began campaigning on more niche yet growing social media platforms such as Spotify, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. In doing this Clinton is effectively reaching out to a plethora of demographics, each platform targeted at a different audience. Clinton also live-streamed her first large rally through Periscope. Donald Trump used Periscope to announce his candidacy. Republican Jeb Bush used Snapchat to announce his Presidential campaign and Rand Paul produced Snapchat campaign adverts. It is unclear yet the effects of these tools – but in the future it can only be seen to increase. According to The Pew Center (2015) 38% of American adults who use social media use it to promote political causes, and 35% have use it to encourage people to vote.
The 2014 Indian General Election
The largest democracy in the world’s most recent election was dubbed the #TwitterElection due to the fact the majority of campaigning took place online. The winning BJP’s landslide victory (the biggest win in 40 years) was largely attributed to it’s social media savviness. When Narendra Modi was elected he had 16 million likes of Facebook, the second of any politician in the world – and he was the sixth most followed politician on twitter. People within the party described social media as the most important factor in their victory.
The BJP use social media to connect to the electorate very early on – by crowdsourcing its manifesto. Modi also held a Google Hangout to answer a variety of questions an #ModiHangout became a trending topic on twitter.
While the countries 91 million users popular users may seem like a high figure, this is only 20% of the Indian population and with 66.38% turnout out it is evident that the entire campaign success was not due to social media. (Internet Live Stats, 2015). However, the countries internet penetration rate is one of the fastest growing in the world, rising 37% between 2013 and 2014.
Furthermore of India’s online population, 75% are under 35 – hence it clear that in the future this will only grow as a campaign tool as more people reach electorate age and older generations ceae to vote.
#Milifandom: The 2015 UK General Election
British Twitter saw a myriad on political trends in 2015 from #CameronMustGo to #RoadToRuin, #StopSocialCleansing, #WeBackEd and #MiliFandom these served multiple purposes to challenge the traditional -arguably biased- media perception of political groups and leaders, or to build support for social movements and particular political parties and politicians. By the end of May 7th (polling day) the #GE2015 hashtag had been mentioned more than 265,000 times (Williamson, 2015).
Movements such as #WeBackEd and #Milifandom, raising support for the Labour Party and for Ed Miliband were huge – the founders said they started them to get counteract the negative ‘biased’ portrayal of Miliband in the mass ‘mainstream’ media. By using social media, these tweeters shaped and created their own content – becoming opinion leaders in the process and influencing the electorate hugely. What is unclear, is whether these trends were reflective of the larger political environment – or – if they were the cause of it.
Many pollsters tried to use Twitter to predict the election outcome, but this was largely unsuccessful – as the eventual result was very different from what was predicted in the polls. Critics (Burnap, 2015) argued that the use of twitter as a tool was overly simplistic – identifying the model as ‘more tweets leads to more votes’ however this evidently wasn’t the case as demonstrated in the figure 1 and 3. Even when we analyse the sentiment of various parties (figure 2) – this is not in line with vote. Twitter overestimated the vote share of the leftwing parties (SNP, Labour and Green), perhaps due to the fact the most active demographic on twitter (18-25 year olds) are also the most likely to vote for a left wing party.
The same rings true for the party leaders, for the six weeks ending 6 May, Miliband has been tweeted about 693,924 times , Cameron was tweeted about 616,357 and UKIP leader Nigel Farage was tweeted about 296,029 times, and Nick Clegg was tweeted about 146,765 times (see figure 4).
So why did Labour lose the election?
Looking at social media, it would seem Labour were the clear winner in the election, broadcasting nearly doubled the number of posts as the Conservatives. It is unclear why Labour seemed to do better on social media lost the election – perhaps due to the fact the demographics in which Labour outperformed the Conservatives are also the most active on Twitter (Mori, 2015).
Social media campaigning in student elections
In almost all student elections in the UK, social media is the primary campaign tool. A study by the Pew Center (2013) showed that University students were likely to base their opinions on friends who like other Facebook pages.
At the University of Southampton, the 2015 sabbatical elections saw a direct correlation between the number of Facebook ‘likes’ each candidates paged received and where they ranked in the results (Blogs.susu.org, 2015). This is the case throughout the UK and within other countries – such as India – for example the 2015 election at Rajasthan University was campaigned on solely on social media (Shukla, 2015).
Conclusion and Discussions
Dozens of studies have shown that social media can be an extremely useful tool in engaging the electorate and encouraging political participation (Bode, 2012, Bond et al, 2012, Boullaine , 2014, Burlap et al, 2015 Chao 2014, Charles, 2015, Conroy, Feezell and Guerrero, 2012, Dimitrova et al., 2011, Douglas et al., 2015 Gil de Zúñiga, Molyneux and Zheng, 2014, Goodman et al., 2011, Harris and Harrigan, 2015, Holt et al., 201, Parsons, 2015 and Williamson, 2015).
However, it is unclear the effects in which it is useful as a campaign tool to vote. As it simultaneously causes and reflects wider political direction. It is a growing tool, and by no means a passive bystander – the group that are most likely to vote are also the least likely to be on social media and visa versa (Mori, 2015). For the time being, a campaign cannot be won by using social media alone – but it also cannot be won without it.
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