‘Secret election weapon’ it may be, but is social media’s role in political campaigning friend or foe?

First Trump, then Brexit. It was social media wot done it, apparently. Where once posters (and the doorstep) were the battlegrounds that decided elections, now the focus has shifted to social media, and its role in political campaigns.

And if the way in which political parties have been flocking to Facebook is anything to go by, the political strategists certainly think social media is the latest powerful electioneering tool. The combination of hyper-targeting and cost efficiency lets political parties target micro segments with highly tailored messages.

This level of micro targeting seems to be alarming to some commentators, but is it really anything new in the world of communications? Hasn’t direct/one-to-one communications always sought to use tailored and relevant messaging to reach tightly defined audience groups? And if that messaging is more relevant, and therefore more resonant, isn’t that to be applauded? Certainly, if you’re one of the smaller political parties like the Women’s Equality Party, who we work with at Now, the Facebook ad model lets you play very smart with finite resources.

But, there are some big ‘buts’. Most worrying is the ‘filter bubble’, the increasingly understood phenomenon by which social media users are served content that supports their existing views – because the newsfeed algorithm is based on what they have previously engaged with, or what their friends have previously ‘liked’. The net result is that, now more than at any time in modern history, those of us who choose to get our news through social media are exposed to a narrower and narrower range of opinion. According to Pew research, that includes 61% of millennials.

PolitEcho demonstrates this in action, comparing the political persuasion of your Facebook friends with the views presented to you in your newsfeed. Like me, you’ll probably find that your newsfeed amplifies the political bias of your friends. Think yourself relatively well read and informed? Actually, you’re living in an echo chamber.

Does this matter? A 2015 study suggested 60% of Facebook users have no idea that their newsfeeds are curated, so yes, there’s a real danger that people assume that what they see reflects what’s really going on out there. Perhaps this explains why so many Remainers were so surprised by the Brexit vote: the scale of anti-Brexit feeling was simply masked by the worldview that they experienced online.

And there’s a more serious impact too. Psychologists have long known the power of social norms. Using social norms to positive effect is the basis of effective behaviour change: helping people to stop smoking, preventing drug use or encouraging people to wear seatbelts, for example. But in a political context, there’s a danger that when our views are no longer tempered by different opinions, they become more extreme and more polarised.

And that’s exactly what happens in a social media bubble. So, if you’re a new political party with an important point to get across, getting into people’s feeds can be a major challenge. The Women’s Equality Party, for example, don’t just want to get votes in this election, they also want to influence the policies of the other parties. But to do so, they need to get their message in front of all voters, not simply those who might put a cross against a WEP candidate in the ballot box.

Democracy presumes that the electorate is able to make an informed choice. But combine the filter bubble, which dramatically reduces what we see, with the fake news that perpetuates myths and automation bots that drive up the ‘likes’ a post receives, and you potentially have a serious challenge to that democracy.

So is social media friend or foe? Whatever your views about how political parties use it, one thing we can be very glad of is the way social media unleashes our collective creativity as a nation. Having suffered some fairly lacklustre campaigning thus far, at least when the prospect of enduring another ‘strong and stable’ lecture beckons, we can instead turn to social media for a bit of light relief.

#TheresaMayGIFs anyone? Or Star Wars Corbyn memes? This year we’ve even got what looks like a chart-topping song courtesy of Captain SKA and YouTube. Surely this is social media at its best: democratic, engaging, relevant, acutely insightful and often very funny. There’s no better commentator on the 2017 election.

Kate Waters is chief strategy officer and co-founder of Now

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