Why social media won’t win the election (this time)

In the few years since a new generation of social media have transformed our idea of staying connected and reaching out to others, the online world has quickly turned into a political arena, writes Dr Jens Binder.

The 2008 US presidential elections, the YouTube elections, and the role of Twitter and other services during the Arab Spring are just two of the most prominent examples. It is to be expected that from now onwards every major election will be run, scrutinised, analysed and commented upon offline as well as online. Indeed, analysts have been quick to find social media metrics such as link shares and retweets on Twitter to provide further measures of conventional mass media campaigns such as the party leaders’ TV debate.

Although the trend is clear – there is no going back to the era before social media – it is very challenging to ascribe specific politics-related effects to media use. In the following, some of the likely and not so likely benefits of social media engagement on the side of political parties will be considered.

Last November, a leaked Facebook bill to the Conservative party, running up to more than £110,000, gave a clear indication that parties are indeed investing in social media. What went largely unnoticed by the public is that the largest item on the bill was not about mere Facebook presence (since when does it cost something to be on Facebook?) but about specific types of targeted advertising on Facebook.

Being online no longer affords a modern and up-to-date image. Social media are no longer populated by early adopters who can turn into powerful opinion brokers. Our current age has every company and product listed on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as the majority of the population of the Western world. Rather than wanting to appear trendy, the real incentive for political parties to have an online presence lies in the fact that not being online would be as odd as not being in the printed press.

But does it help to gain votes?

There is something to be said for increased online outreach, not least because services are interrelated in increasingly confused ways, user information deposited with one service is easily passed on to others, and service terms and conditions are by no means clear to the average user. Facilitated outreach “to the masses” goes hand in hand with the notion of online social capital, the idea that users or online groups can mobilise and steer widespread social support. While social media have indeed led to greater feelings of connectedness and perceived social capital in many users, demonstrations of actual and targeted social impact have been less convincing so far. A large-scale experiment conducted on Facebook during the 2010 US congressional elections found evidence for increased voter turnout due to social messages shared online. Although this is an impressive finding, leaving aside the ethical debate this type of research has sparked among researchers, it should be noted that the overall effect size, the actual gain in votes, was tiny.

Things become even more challenging when the aim is to sway voter opinion. Research conducted since the so-called YouTube election has essentially confirmed earlier notions of mass media impact and partisanship. Political analysts have often focused on partisanship detectable in the media; in contrast, psychological analyses have also highlighted perceived media bias as a correlate of partisanship in individuals. Put differently, political preferences and attitudes have an overwhelming influence on how people perceive, interpret and select media content. For social media, this seems to imply a balancing act: on one hand, political content is easily commented, shared and passed on, on the other, political content from particular sources is also easily ignored.

Ironically, the general social dynamics that operate in online social networks are likely to push this balance in favour of no opinion change. In spite of the promise of unlimited social outreach, average users will not have exposure to a universe of opinions, they will be mostly surrounded by like-minded online contacts. The mutual similarity of network contacts on dimensions such as political attitudes, sometimes referred to as homophily, is well documented in sociology and social psychology and has been shown for offline and online networks alike.
This points to a main difference between online social networking and conventional mass media. While information travels easily online and users are open to social influences, they can also be quite elusive to specific targeting by political actors. The networking powers of social media, if they are to transform into real action, are more likely to play a role in the creation and maintenance of an active support base for parties. Interestingly, this particular role has barely been discussed so far in the context of an electoral race, much more so for the rise of smaller parties.

Coming back to what it takes to win an election: votes. If the persuasion of prospective voters is not taking place on a grand scale online, does this mean that we can safely ignore social media for the time being? The sheer volume and detail of the current discussion suggests otherwise, and it is here precisely where the real impact may lie. Social media content is becoming part of people’s everyday lives, and as a result it is increasingly recognised and discussed in the mainstream mass media, both offline and online. As such, social media presence affords politicians to receive a bigger share of mass media attention, and this is what carries much further than the blogosphere and straight into the living rooms of the electorate.

Strictly speaking, however, it is not just the content generated by politicians that gets copied and turned into news items, it is the whole online debate surrounding such content that is further processed and turned into news items. This turns social media activity into one of many avenues of running a campaign and into the two-edged sword that politicians are accustomed to wield. The actual impact on public opinion is sometimes hard to predict. To take just one example, both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have been attributed with a talent of using Twitter. But while the former seems to continue on the path of success, UKIP had to rethink its approach to Twitter use shortly before the start of the election race due to an increase in uncoordinated Tweets that were perceived as blunders.

In the end, research has not been able to demonstrate that social media are the short-cut to winning an election, but there are still plenty of reasons for political actors to take their online presence seriously.

Will the election be decided by social media engagement: Most probably not. Can political parties do without social media engagement: Definitely not.

Dr Jens Binder
Senior Lecturer in Psychology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

This article originally appeared on the Political Studies Association blog

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