James Leavesley, CEO of CrowdControlHQ takes a look at the question of the moment.
It’s a brave political party that ignores social media in the run up to the General Election. However, can social media activity predict how the nation will vote on Thursday 7 May and the final result? Considering that more than 70% of adults are now registered users of social media accounts, a reasonably accurate prediction should be viable as social media provides a platform for expression. However, another factor to consider is that only certain ages or groups may feel comfortable expressing their opinions and political beliefs on a social platform. The demographics of the electorate will also be a major influence on the result and according to Ipsos Mori 76% of over-65s turned out to vote in the 2010 General Election compared with only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds. With a smaller overall percentage of 65s active on social media but more likely to vote than any other age group any prediction is not made easy.
The Obama Factor
The main contenders might be tempted to follow President Obama’s lead during the 2012 re-election campaign which saw his campaign office spend $47m on social media in comparison with Republican Mitt Romney his opponent’s spend of the $4.7m. With the Conservative Party currently spending over £100,000 a month on its Facebook output, maybe it’s time to consider whether the choice of social media platform makes a difference.
If Facebook Likes were parliamentary seats then Facebook users predict a UKIP and Conservative coalition. Yet on Twitter, which has a younger demographic, the Labour party has more followers. Are cash-strapped students more likely to vote for the political party that promises to cut university tuition fees? There are twice as many Twitter users aged 18-29 than 30-39 is this why different demographics and social media channels may appear to be supporting different parties?
Regardless of which platform is used it remains difficult to identify whether opinions expressed on social media are a genuine representation of an individual’s thoughts. Maybe they are posting similar views seen online in an attempt to conform. Studies have found that many users have faked some part of their online profiles in order to conform to social expectations. The anonymity of voting is therefore appreciated by online users – while agreeing online they may then go onto vote for a different party. Bearing in mind the main factors that people lie about on social media are typically their location, occupation and relationship status, how can we be sure their opinions on political debates are honest?.
Constructing an identity that is fictitious is effortless through social media sites. The user is responsible for what they wish to share with their online friends, which means any personal image can be created. A US survey revealed that more than 30% of social media users are more honest in-person rather than online. This suggests that some opinions put across on social media accounts may not be representative of what a person truly thinks making it difficult to take what is said on social media at face value. It’s a conundrum and therefore difficult to predict a reliable result.
Social or Traditional Marketing
In marginal seats there is no doubt that traditional marketing methods will be heavily used by prospective candidates including leafleting, appearances on local television and radio, shaking hands, being photographed with babies and even door-step canvassing. However, political parties are not allowed to advertise on television, therefore Facebook becomes a valuable campaign tool. Through the use of personalised advertising political parties are able to target a range of people. While on social media, users may subconsciously engage with subliminal messaging which could influence their opinion and could be the reason behind their own posts about a particularly party. With this level of potential influence it is important for political parties to stay in control of what is posted centrally.
Just as every press release would need to go through multiple approval levels every Facebook post or Tweet should be managed using a social media risk management and compliance platform. It only takes one incoherent political message to be sent out and that message to be very quickly exposed through the power of social media and for a campaign to come crashing down. So while social media could be regarded as the best thing since sliced bread – a sandwich eaten with a photographer nearby or one pint of beer too many can do untold damage if spread across social channels.
Dangerous to Ignore
Political parties ignore the power of social media at their peril. As President Obama proved embracing social channels can deliver success, however, managing its power should be a priority. As for whether social media can predict the result of this year’s General Election only time will tell and with weeks to go all the indications are that the outcome will be tight just as in 2010 and last year’s Scottish Referendum. Watch this space.