To the TikTok and YouTube generations, a 20-minute livestream is an eternity. The cut-throat pacing of modern social media content is relentless, and celebrities and media firms have raced to develop snappier and more effective short content. In the world of politics, however, we are yet to adapt. Politicians today have the invaluable ability to communicate directly with voters, party members, and political supporters. Rather than making content for a new world, though, they craft long speeches and post cuttings to Facebook.
Now, I am not saying that social media is not already a hugely important campaign tool. In 2019, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin helped produce waves of highly effective online content for the Tories. But the impact was still largely delivered through traditional media, like TV and radio. The Conservatives would release a doctored video of Keir Starmer or false claims about nurses, causing enough furore to break into the papers or broadcast media. Conversely, clips from TV or radio would be edited and shared online. Both of these models treat social media as secondary to traditional media. It might have helped shape the story, but voters were targeted through legacy media.
Likewise, content produced by Labour, especially Momentum, was shared extensively online. However, this was largely playing to the base. People who already supported Labour were encouraged to share content, building enthusiasm. The Obama 2008 campaign exemplified this approach at its best, with online excitement converting to on-the-ground organisers and donations. Rarely, however, did it result in voter persuasion. Fundamentally, politicians do not try to persuade on social media. Labour’s online content in 2019 thrived within echo-chambers but was not intended to have mass appeal.
Once, perhaps, media consultants could argue that online content could not directly influence voters. Your Twitter following is already voting for you, after all. Today, everyone and their mum is on Facebook, countless YouTube channels have more subscribers than the Daily Mail, and people increasingly get their news from social media. The electorate is online; it is the politicians who have yet to follow.
Labour need to stop treating digital as an adjunct to traditional media and create communications designed to be online. Rather than cutting down or clipping House of Commons speeches, politicians should be creating videos and images specifically for social media. Politics must meet voters where they are.
To begin with, the returns on these virtual efforts will be lower than in traditional media. After all, Keir Starmer’s total Twitter reach is less than Good Morning Britain’s daily audience and is probably skewed away from swing voters. However, as the explosion in conservative content online in the USA proves, social media is not the preserve of young leftists. Many swing voters are online, but our strategy ignores them.
What would a social media native strategy look like?
Firstly, short, inspiring videos, and simple graphics should be a staple of Labour communications, like leaflets or signage. Some of these should certainly be aimed at existing supporters, to persuade them to campaign, but it is just as important to reach swing voters. We will always need activists to door-knock, leaflet, and phonebank. However, Labour’s communications teams should also help supporters to use social media to directly communicate the reasons to vote Labour. The graphics produced for the local elections – generally involving hard-hitting statistics over an eye-catching image – are a very good start. Going forward, coordination and consistency is key. Just as Labour exercises message discipline over interviews and TV appearances, the social media narrative needs to be guided strategically.
On top of this, Labour politicians should not be afraid of online conversations. Often, in the mould of print and broadcast media, social media is treated as a one-way medium. It is not, and it should not be: politicians can talk with voters, rather than just to them. Social media posts should be taken as seriously as TV or radio appearances. It is an opportunity for Labour to shed its elitist perception by putting across authentic messages directly to the voters we are seeking. The likes of Jess Phillips, David Lammy, and Angela Rayner are already proficient, putting across a relatable persona on social media without being divisive or gaffe-prone. The leadership and party machine must adopt this as well.
Finally, social media should be treated as an engagement goal, not just an engagement tool. The Labour leadership should be using live events, traditional media performances, and broadcasted speeches to increase their online following. In particular, we need to draw in people who are not already engaged with the Labour party. Critical to this is a coordinated effort to widen the party’s online network, which requires pooling of data. People are connected socially via concentric circles, so each voter added to our online networks now can massively increase our ability to communicate in an election.
New technology often takes a while to fundamentally change things. Social Media currently sits within a broader system of political communication that isn’t optimised for it. The first party that can use social media naturally will have an enormous advantage. With any luck, Labour can make sure that advantage is ours and not someone else’s.