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What role will social media play in the upcoming general election?

By Daniel Andrews, CEO & Founder

the tree by Poppins


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July 1, 2024 | 7 min read

Ahead of next week’s vote, Daniel Andrews of The Tree by Poppins reflects on the role of social media in choosing our leaders – and on the pre-election period of purdah.

A sticker reading 'I voted' on the end of someone's finger

As technology evolves, says Daniels Andrews, it is important to remain committed to fair and transparent elections / Parker Johnson via Unsplash

Social media’s power in shaping election outcomes should not be understated. The technology can amplify messages rapidly, create viral content, and mobilize voters. According to Ofcom, 47% of UK adults use social media for news – testament to the influence these platforms have on public opinion.

The upcoming UK election, triggered by Rishi Sunak‘s snap decision, has seen a flurry of social media activity. Early indications suggest that Labour is making significant noise online, with targeted campaigns aimed at young voters, while the Conservatives are leveraging their substantial social media following to rally support.

Analytics show a spike in activity since the snap election announcement. For instance, data from CrowdTangle reveals that political posts related to the election have increased by over 200% on Facebook and Instagram in the past month. Twitter has seen similar trends, with election-related hashtags trending daily.

Labour‘s digital team has been particularly active, with their posts generating high engagement rates. A recent analysis by social media monitoring firm Brandwatch found that Labour‘s posts receive an average engagement rate of 6.4%, compared to the Conservatives’ 5.2%. This suggests that Labour‘s digital strategy is resonating well with audiences.

Already, there have been controversial moments – memes, misinformation, and heated exchanges – fueling debates and drawing attention. A viral tweet by a Conservative candidate was flagged for misinformation, causing a significant spike in social media discussions about the integrity of online campaigning. Similarly, a Labour candidate‘s TikTok video went viral, sparking debates about the appropriateness of using entertainment platforms for serious political discourse.

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There’s been a purdah

For someone like me, who began my media career working on projects such as Teachers TV, TFL, and Ministry of Defence print publications, the period before an election, known as purdah, always held significance. Activities ground to a halt, with services and media sponsorships linked to government contracts put on hold.

The term - derived from the Persian word for "veil" or "curtain"—refers to the period in the UK between the announcement of an election and the formation of the next government. Restrictions are placed on government and local authorities to prevent them from making announcements that could influence the outcome of the election.

Purdah is meant to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes and that the election process remains fair and impartial. Its intention is to safeguard the democratic process by creating a level playing field. However, in today‘s world, where social media is a dominant battleground for electoral parties, purdah‘s relevance and effectiveness are increasingly being called into question.

The rapid evolution of social media has transformed the way political campaigns are conducted. In an era of real-time communication, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are pivotal in shaping public opinion. Political parties use these platforms to target voters with precision, leveraging data analytics to craft personalized messages.

The once-clear lines of purdah are now blurred, with a continuous stream of information – some of which can be seen as propaganda – flooding social feeds.

There have been numerous instances where the sanctity of purdah has been challenged by social media. During the 2017 general election, several local councils were accused of breaching purdah rules by posting politically charged content on their official social media accounts. Incidents like this highlight the difficulty in the digital age of maintaining a clear distinction between permissible communication and partisan campaigning.

Democracy at stake

In the current electoral landscape, reports indicate that local councils and government bodies continue to tread a fine line. The rise of "dark ads”– targeted political advertisements not visible to the general public but aimed at specific user groups – adds another layer of complexity. These ads can be highly influential yet difficult to monitor and regulate.

While the effectiveness of all parties’ social media strategies remains to be seen, it is clear that the traditional concept of purdah struggles to hold up in this new era. The lines between what is allowed, what is appropriate, and what constitutes propaganda are increasingly blurred. This contentious reality calls for a re-evaluation of purdah in the context of modern electoral practices.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, so too must our approach to ensuring fair and impartial elections. Whether this involves stricter regulations, greater transparency, or innovative solutions to monitor social media activity, one thing is certain: purdah, as we once knew it, may never be the same again. And perhaps, that is the debate we need to have.

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Digital Transformation Social Media Public Relations (PR)

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Part of the House of Poppins, the tree by Poppins isAward-winning socially led integrated marketing agency with extraordinary ideas to help shape and grow all parts...

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