The down-to-earth Green Party have traditionally distanced themselves from the image-conscious, personality-driven world of contemporary US-style election campaign glitz. This made their ‘Change The Tune’ party political broadcast featuring a spoof boy-band line-up of the other (male) party leaders all the more surprising. Some thought it was a masterstroke, others felt it was embarrassing, but whatever the response, its launch (on YouTube, preceded with an announcement on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ChangeTheTune), served to highlight the significant role social media can play in this election campaign.
Politicians have begun to understand that our increasingly rapid and uncritical consumption of digital content has implications for the capacity to use social media as a platform for serious debate. We have become accustomed to reading our news distilled down into 140 tweeted characters, and so it is no surprise that the BBC and others have published ‘handy’ interactive guides to where all the parties stand on all the issues; we simply don’t have time to read through a fifty-page manifesto. Hence we are seeing an increase in the parties’ use of images and messages accompanied by the modern-day equivalent of the soundbite, the hashtag.
Hashtags are generally used in one of three ways. First, they are used to simply index a post by the content (a particular word or phrase, such as #GE2015), ensuring that it will be picked up in searches. This is especially useful for anyone actively searching for tweets to get a snapshot of what is being discussed, as journalists often do, but it has little effect in terms of conveying complex meaning or engaging the electorate in an active way.
Second, hashtags are used to tie online discussion into an offline event. This was especially noticeable during the televised leaders debates. Here we see a convergence between the offline and online, and it is in this arena where we might see some serious engagement. As events unfold on TV, the audience tweet responses which are based upon active engagement with the debates, and public opinion begins to form. Politicians’ use of hashtags here is irrelevant; it is their performance in other media outlets that takes centre stage, but whereas the ensuing discussion used to be restricted to the family gathered around a television set in the living room, now the living room is virtual, including everything labelled as #leadersdebate in the Twittersphere.
The third type of hashtag is possibly the most effective, but also most difficult to implement successfully. It is the hashtag that communicates a simple idea around which people can formulate a collective identity, and is dependent upon tapping into an existing sentiment, often informed by strong feelings of frustration. For this reason they are especially useful for voicing protest, and have been employed very effectively by social activism groups. The success of #OccupyWallStreet can be measured partly by the way in which it transformed from an idea into tangible action, but also by its incorporation into the vernacular of popular culture. A trending hashtag can crystalise an idea if it resonates with strong public feeling, but these hashtags are only effective because they channel negativity towards a specific target. In this sense, they encapsulate modern campaign politics which has become as much about exposing an enemies’ particular weaknesses as it is espousing one’s own strengths. This might explain the recent success of the #GetCameronOut hashtag.
So how are parties performing in the battle for hashtag supremacy? An analysis of most-used Twitter hashtags by the various parties over the past six months is revealing. Parties have generally used the first type of hashtag as tools for labelling and indexing content: #GE2015 or #battlefornumber10 both appear frequently.
The second type of hashtag is – unsurprisingly – especially evident in the prevalence of the #leadersdebate tag across all parties.
A few examples of the third type of hashtag are evident. The Greens have successfully employed the #invitethegreens hashtag to mobilise support for their inclusion in the televised leader debates among people who felt their exclusion to be an injustice, and their #changethetune hashtag is clearly aimed at the perceived lack of differentiation between the other main parties. The Labour Party have employed #runningscared to specifically target David Cameron’s initial reluctance to become involved in the televised debates, and have now begun using it to highlight areas where they perceive the Conservative’s campaign to be on the defensive. UKIP’s election slogan #believeinbritain offers an example which conveys quite a complex message about their take on British identity in a very concise hashtag. They are able to develop such a strong hashtag because they have a clear single target – immigration – against which to channel existing public discontent; the vision of Britain in which they are inviting us to believe is set against that which they see as having been tainted by immigration.
The Conservatives have recently responded with their own hashtag, #realchangeineurope, to highlight their plans for a referendum, but its status as a clear response to an existing hashtag renders it less potent.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Greens and UKIP appear to be having some success at implementing these hashtags of protest; they have both positioned themselves as alternatives to mainstream, ‘business-as-usual’ politics, and therefore have a clear target at which to aim; the mainstream parties could learn from this.
However politicians set about using social media during the campaign, one thing is clear: they will need to compete with an ever-growing digital media landscape of distractions. Winning the election could be as much about trending and going viral as it is about knocking on doors.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University