The social media election? It's more echo chamber than two-way conversation
Just in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a general election campaign going on. And according to lots of people who work in our business, social media is making this an election unlike anything that has gone before.
“Social media is at the heart of the campaign,” Facebook’s UK politics and government specialist, Elizabeth Linder, told the BBC. “Parties and candidates are understanding that this is a two-way conversation… this is the kind of space to show one’s authentic self, and to ask questions of people as well as answering them.”
Adam Sharp, Twitter’s global head of news, government and elections, agrees. “With more than three-quarters of MPs already on the platform, we know Twitter is where the live conversation about the election is happening,” he said, publicising research that suggests nearly half of 18-34 year-olds have become interested in a political or social cause as a result of information from the site.
The live TV debates have generated huge volumes of conversation, with media outlets providing real-time audience reaction by monitoring sentiment on Twitter. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that viewers were engaging in the finer points of the policy debate – the main social buzz around the Scottish leaders’ debate seemed to focus on #fakemoustacheguy, the mysterious audience member eventually unmasked as a taxi driver from Dundee.
Cheerleaders for social media claim that these platforms can inject a new lease of life into our jaded political system. It’s an opportunity to reach younger voters who are less engaged in the political process. It’s an opportunity for dialogue and conversation, not just one-way broadcast messaging. And it’s an opportunity to harness personal recommendation and word of mouth as a more credible and effective forum of persuasion, making that silly old-fashioned advertising stuff look tired and irrelevant.
Sound familiar? These are all the same arguments that have been made on behalf of brands for several years. And while there’s an element of truth in all of them, I can’t help feeling that such breathless evangelism is a bit idealistic.
It’s great that Twitter allows people to connect directly with an audience, without relying on expensive advertising or traditional media outlets. But faced with the infinite choice of deciding which accounts to follow, a confirmation bias tends to kick in. People follow the people, organisations and causes that reinforce the views they already have.
The same thing happens on the wider web. Reading the user comments on any news site is a profoundly depressing experience. No one ever changes their mind. No one ever concedes an inch. Positions get more and more entrenched. If anything, it’s even more one-dimensional than the traditional broadcast era we were supposed to have left behind.
Facebook is an immensely powerful platform. But brands have learned the hard way that unlocking that power requires media investment. And once you’re spending money to target messages at specific groups of voters, then are we really in the brave new world of two-way conversations?
The truth is that 2015 won’t be the UK’s first social media election. It might be the first occasion where most voters are active on social media platforms. But those same users are also actively watching TV, listening to the radio, walking past posters, living in houses with letterboxes, and chatting with their colleagues at work. As with any marketing challenge in 2015, it’s understanding how all these channels co-exist that is the key to success.
Jon Davie is UK CEO at Zone. He tweets @JonDavie
In the run up to polling day, The Drum has launched a weekly podcast debating the key media and marketing moments of the campaign. Stream or download episode one below.