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  • Writer's pictureLotty Feuilherade

From memes to manifestos: The new frontier of political campaigning


The dominance of social media has transformed approaches to political campaigning and unlocked a new medium through which political advertisements can be disseminated. Social media has evolved into a defining factor of recent political campaigns, and parties have broadened their usage of various networks, now maintaining an active presence on platforms like Instagram in addition to the traditional likes of X (Twitter) and Facebook. Online campaigns enable the development of parasocial relationships and the mobilisation of wider audiences, whilst stimulating political dialogue on a diverse range of social media platforms. From snappy infographics and soundbites to memes, political parties are employing modern strategies to attract new voters and we are likely to witness unprecedented levels of spending on political advertising in upcoming campaigns. However, this will bring a range of risks to political engagement to which policy must continue to react, and perhaps some benefits too.


In the past decade, the tool of social media has been harnessed to charm a larger audience of voters who would not otherwise be reached via traditional campaigning methods. Donald Trump's electoral victory in 2016 is largely credited to his notorious use of Twitter, through which he connected with his support base. CNN’s senior political analyst, Kirsten Powers, went as far as to assert that 'without Twitter, there would be no Donald Trump presidency', illustrating just how instrumental social media is in contemporary political campaigns. Many scholars predict that his social media address may set a precedent for a rise in presidential online talk and digital campaigns in the future.


According to OfCom’s 2023 study into news consumption in the UK, 47% of UK adults use social media for news, as do 71% of 16-24-year-olds. The study also found that Facebook remains the most popular platform but is experiencing a decline in popularity. Meanwhile, Instagram and TikTok have surged in popularity as a source for political and international news. Ultimately, this means that social media’s influence equates to, if not eclipses, that of traditional, well-established news outlets. Therefore, it is unsurprising that UK political parties have followed the US’ pattern in placing an increasing emphasis on the social media portion of their election campaigns.


Not only does social media act as a news outlet but it has also become a 'playground' for political advertising, which regularly blurs the lines between credible news and entertainment. For instance, the Labour Party’s official Instagram account has recently adopted a controversial approach in incorporating memes into their political campaign content. In an attempt to resonate with a younger audience, Labour has ventured into the production of memes, some of which, for example, ridicule PM Rishi Sunak for his reluctance to announce a date for the next general election. The posts featured below exemplify Labour's contentious approach to appeal to younger voters.


While there is certainly something to be said for the value of connecting with younger

generations who perhaps find memes more accessible than traditional approaches to campaigning, Labour received plenty of backlash.


Various users were unimpressed by this content and commented:


'I know you think you're on a comedic roll but these memes are not hitting how you think they are. You're embarrassing yourself’.


'Is this @uklabour attempt to speak to the younger generation?'


'Imagine if you put as much time into forming policies as you do making low-tier memes'

Labour's bid to win over younger voters has seemingly backfired and may have instead discredited the party's integrity, alienated potential voters, and provoked criticism about its repeated attacks on the Tories in the absence of its own suggested policy solutions. Labour has since reduced its meme content in response to this criticism. Nonetheless, its flippant usage of memes testifies to the increasing trivialisation of political campaigns and a widespread sentiment that politics is becoming unserious and superficial.


There are numerous other implications of social media political campaigning. For instance, it enables specific constituency targeting, which can be an invaluable tool for digital campaigns, utilised by the Conservatives who tailored certain 'geo-targeted ads' to inform certain audiences about how many votes were required in their constituency for a Conservative victory. However, parties propagating different messages to different groups can be problematic due to a lack of transparency, privacy and equal access to information.


The risks posed by social media political advertisements are compounded by the existence of echo chambers, which reverberate a user’s existing views on their social media feed and reinforce their beliefs by reproducing similar political content to align with their engagement history, meaning they often lack a well-rounded variety of insights and may be poorly informed. There is also widespread concern about users' susceptibility to fake news, though fortunately the Electoral Commission has detected a rise in scepticism about the credibility of political parties' campaigns and discovered that 60% of people surveyed do not believe that political content online is trustworthy.


This perceived prudence is supported by the rise of reliable and neutral fact-checking accounts which supply social media users with balanced and credible news such as Simple Politics and UK Fact Check Politics. Though, on the other hand, the activity of factcheckUK (a Twitter account which posed as an independent service but was in fact run by the Conservative party) during the run-up to the 2019 general election indicates that the use of social media networks by political parties has escalated into competitive chaos.


Despite how it is often assumed that digital ad campaigns have piqued levels of political engagement, a recent study into the influence of social media ads on voter registration found that the effects were null and that UK digital ad campaigns have failed to elevate voter registration among under-registered groups.


Another complication of digital campaigning is its potential to obscure campaign spending levels, an essential consideration which serves as a measure to ensure electoral regulation and fairness in the UK. Fortunately, in November 2023 the Electoral Commission introduced new legislation on the transparency of online campaigning which necessitates a declaration of who paid for and produced the political content. In addition, social media platforms have implemented new procedures to verify the identity of those who share political advertisements. TikTok even banned political advertisements altogether, however, these policies have been criticised for their lack of strict scrutinisation and enforcement, and many influencers have been discovered to have undisclosed paid relationships with political groups in the US.


Meta’s noteworthy approach to handling politics on its platforms also recently provoked controversy. In March, it announced an update to Instagram and Threads which reduced political content on users’ feeds from accounts they don’t follow, a policy which was implemented on Facebook in 2021 and is described as a response to calls for the curtailment of political content on these platforms. This decision has been met with much criticism, and Meta has been denounced by the chief executive of News Media Association for trying to ‘diminish public access to political content’ and thus risking ‘undermining robust democratic engagement’, particularly in the year of numerous crucial elections.


Of the multi-faceted influence of social media on politics, digital ad campaigning is an area that political scientists continue to research, and policy continues to regulate. From making memes to launching disguised ‘fact-checking’ accounts, all political parties are venturing into this social media battleground. In the run-up to the next UK general election, it will be interesting to see how successfully they exploit their platforms on social media and whether this translates into electoral triumph.


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