Blocked: social media and elections
I am confident that we all tried calling the outcome of the US election as the votes trickled in – with such a nail-biting contest, how could we not? But when false claims around Trump’s early victory spread on social media, the platforms stepped in – as they had promised – by blocking or labelling posts. The power of social is wielded to convey misinformation with such reach and precision that it now requires policing by its owners. But how has the use of social media in politics developed and what we can learn from it?
Blocked: social media and elections
While David Cameron complained about the ‘instantness’ of Twitter in 2009, Barack Obama had already harnessed the full breadth of social media to earn his reputation as the first ‘Social Media President’. Obama’s 2008 campaign used a wide range of channels from Twitter to LinkedIn and even a bespoke social media site, MyBO. This meant that he could reach citizens on their preferred channel, driving donations and crowdsourcing support for remote phone campaigning, for example.
Obama marked history as the first presidential candidate to forgo public funding in order to avoid spending limits and pursue unlimited micro-donations. His digital-first campaign drove $114m in small donations alone, which represented 34% more than McCain’s $85m total from public funding. Come election night, it was clear that Obama had led a trailblazing digital campaign which used multiple channels to amplify his messaging, to drive volunteering and funding and to shore up the vote. Lesson one – know your users and their preferred channels.
While his first campaign brought social media to the fore, Obama’s 2012 effort represented another revolution with its extensive use of data-driven marketing. The campaign gathered a wide range of data on each voter including voting history and demographics and overlaid this with proprietary information from social media, web and data from in-person visits. Overlaying these sources with commercial data, behavioural modelling allowed his team to understand why voter sub-groups behaved as they did. His campaign could then micro-target messaging through social platforms, measure effectiveness and adapt in real-time. Obama’s use of data-driven marketing was key to his win in 2012, especially in targeting swing states, and opened up a new front for contemporary political marketing. Lesson two – overlay multiple data sources to effectively segment and target your customers.
If Obama established a pioneering social media strategy to connect with and target voters, Trump supercharged the same tactics with his own personal spin. While Obama used social platforms to drive a community and link to his campaign – forging a sense of ‘we’ – Trump used Twitter to counter perceived media bias and to confront his opponents, developing a sense of ‘us vs ‘them’ among followers.
Unlike the other candidates in 2016, Trump linked mostly to news articles rather than his own campaign sites to try and spread favourable coverage and divert away from negative portrayals. Trump’s 24/7 Twitter presence reflected his stream of consciousness (peaking at 200 tweets in one day as president) with his punchy rhetoric suiting the short format. He directed many tweets at his opponents – in less than a year, one in eight of his tweets were insults.
His on-brand social presence as first-time candidate meant that he outperformed the competition across all measures gauging public attention. For example, he received almost 6,000 retweets on average per Twitter post – four times more than Hilary Clinton and over double Bernie Sanders’ count. His presence was reported as ‘a continuous Trump rally’ which effectively supported his anti-establishment campaign. Lesson three – project your brand voice and supporting content with conviction to harness social’s disruptive potential.
Two elements of Trump’s social strategy stand out because they highlight the importance of strong governance. First, the controversy that brought the social platforms under public scrutiny – the Cambridge Analytica scandal. After his first campaign, it was discovered that the firm, which was linked to Trump’s team, had improperly harvested data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users for profiling. Second, Trump continued to share misinformation on social media during the 2020 campaign without effective control from his team, and pushed Twitter and others to label or block his and his followers’ false posts.
Facebook was fined $5bn for violating user privacy in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and was made to change its corporate structure so it was accountable for decisions around privacy. Considering this, and that 23% of adult users in the US have changed their view on issues due to information on social, the impulse for the platforms to act during this election is not surprising. Lesson four – ensure strong data and social media governance is in place to protect your customers, your brand voice and reputation.
The trajectory of social media use in recent campaigns holds several simple but essential lessons for users, from political candidates to brands. Social media provides a direct line to 3.6 billion users worldwide and gives upstarts the power to disrupt their sector and rapidly wield huge influence. The immense quantity of data available enables microtargeting at a level never seen before. But this power must be wielded responsibly – to unite rather than to divide, to build trust rather than to violate it – lest we too meet the even greater power of the platforms.
If you need a trusted partner to optimise your social strategy and data-driven marketing, then head here to read about Capgemini Invent’s work. Alternatively, please feel free to get in touch.
Henri Lawrance is a digital marketing consultant, a part of Capgemini Invent.
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