This year’s appeal for votes has been awash with negative tweets, viral YouTube clips and memes galore – but does it really mean social media has come of age for elections?
There are a few classic election moments that will stick in the memory long after polling day – despite the campaign’s let-downs – and social media has had a big hand in most.
Maybe it will be the moment David Cameron forgot his football team – or perhaps Ed Miliband’s last-minute dash to Russell Brand’s penthouse for a late-night chinwag, or even Nick Clegg reading out highly offensive tweets on the Lib Dem battle bus.
This campaign was buried in hype months before it started, penned firmly into the political diary after the date was set five years ago following the coalition agreement. But has the expectation made it all better, or worse?
“It’s never quite as exciting as you expect,” says Joe Twyman at pollsters YouGov.
“The first election YouGov worked on was in 2001, and I was asked then ‘is this the first internet election?’, then in 2005 I was asked ‘is this the first internet election’, then in 2010 I was asked ‘is this the first social media election?'” he told Channel 4 News.
“I don’t think social media is a game changer, but that’s not to say that it’s not important.”
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) May 4, 2015
He questions whether Facebook is a place of “considered discussions” among users that actually changes people’s views, while Twitter often seems to feature users preaching to the converted.
“What you tend to get is an echo chamber – lots of people with fixed views talking to other people with fixed views,” he says. “People arguing on Twitter are not arguing in an open minded way.”
— Adam Parker (@AdParker) March 23, 2015
He says social media has seemed to contain “the old world in a new place”, becoming another means of “dissemination of information by the media generally”.
“For younger people it is more important, but is by no means replacing traditional media,” he adds.
“TV is still king, then papers and magazines, then radio, but social media is right down there in terms of influence.”
— Matt Chorley (@MattChorley) May 3, 2015
— Jonathan Haynes (@JonathanHaynes) May 4, 2015
Ed Miliband’s stone slab. Labour says will be put up in Downing St garden if they win pic.twitter.com/sQ44clVtYq
— lucy manning (@lucymanning) May 3, 2015
Twitter “is nothing like a representative group of society – it tends to be more left leaning than the general population and younger”, he adds.
“There are lots and lots of people on Twitter who have no interest at all in politics, you only have to look at the number of followers David Cameron has compared to Joey Essex.” (For the record, Mr Cameron has just under 1m compared to Essex’s 3.23m.)
But this view is not shared by Carl Miller, research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media.
“Twitter is broadly representative of the UK – now much more than 2010,” he told Channel 4 News.
Source: “General election 2015 on social media” – report by sotrender
“In 2010 about 34 per cent of people in the UK were on social media, now well over half are.”
“There were about 7m tweets to any politician or candidate or about them in the last 10 weeks – that’s and enormous chaotic morass of lots of things,” he says.
What drives Twitter usage is “converting likes and tweets and favourites into things that matter – volunteers, donations and ultimately votes”, he says.
This is all heavily inspired by the huge success of Barack Obama’s campaigning during his 2008 presidential campaign, when he raised over half his money online and organised huge numbers of “offline” events via the internet, he adds.
It’s now clear that Lib Dems are preparing to hike tuition fees again â?? pic.twitter.com/Vylwq4Yhpr
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) May 3, 2015
Amid all the huge numbers generated by social media, Mr Twyman emphasises “the difference between the promoted stuff and the organic stuff” – especially between the big-spending Tory party and the popular appeal of insurgent parties.
“Ukip has a very well organised cyber force, as we know do the SNP,” he says.
“It tends to be these groups that feel they have been failed or let down, unfairly treated by the mainstream media – so it’s those groups that would tend to mobilise.”
This does not mean the parties’ uses of social media is well-controlled by the centre, or that they always know exactly what they want to achieve.
The internet is taken much more seriously now, “but nobody’s really sure what impact it really has”, says Darren Lilleker, associate professor in political communication at Bournemouth University.
The 2010 election was “a bit like the wild west”, and parties look at social media for this election thinking “if we don’t do it we might lose votes”, he told Channel 4 News.
— CCHQ Press Office (@CCHQPress) May 5, 2015
Much of this election’s social media “is geared towards mobilising supporters – it’s a bit like the Obama campaign, getting people getting together, getting them to join up,” he adds.
“They’ve all been scrabbling around to find a strategy that works,” agrees Mr Miller.
And he is keen to point out that young people “tell us it matters”, pointing to research by IPSO Mori that shows one third of young people think social media shapes their attitudes.
Even so, Mr Twyman is doubtful of such results, given how people polled in such surveys are likely to exaggerate how much a certain input has influenced their behaviour.
But for Mr Lilleker, many of the parties are using social media in the wrong way, “because they’re pushing more negative messages than positive ones”.
A career-defining moment?
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) May 3, 2015
So amid all the internet buzz and guffawing, is it fair to say this is the really “the first social media election”?
A further note of caution is sounded by Keiran Pedley, polling analyst and associate director at market research company GfK.
“Social media is an important communications channel but it remains one of many. It is not decisive,” he told Channel 4 News.
“Many thought that the ‘Yes’ campaign ‘won’ the social media battle during the Scottish independence referendum – and we know how that turned out.”