The internet has played an ever-increasing role in determining the outcome of a General Election.
In 2010, it is estimated that only around 34 per cent of people in the UK were active on social media, compared to more than 65 per cent in 2020 (Statista 2020).
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, pulled off a major shock by winning a clear majority in the 2015 General Election. Up until election day, polling put the Conservatives neck and neck with the Labour Party, with the latter having to form a “messy” collation with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) to have any sort of chance of taking power.
Many political scientists attribute the Conservatives shock win down to a slick and simple election campaign, which focused primarily on two main features – the economy and the potential of an SNP propped up Government in Westminster (Cowley and Kavanagh 2016).
While the previously election in 2010 was seen as the first “social media election,” Facebook was only used as an “interesting way to reach young people.” It was not until the 2015 election that it was truly recognised as a powerful tool that “could reach over half the population and people of all ages” (Channel Four News, 2015).
293,000 potential voters watched the Conservative Party’s short CGI-ed video clip on YouTube in 2015, depicting the then-Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, as an old-fashioned puppet dancing to the tune of the SNP’s Ed Miliband. The video was shared many more thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter.
The Party’s political broadcast pictured a hammer smashing the work of the Conservative Party stating, “this is what happens if we woke up with Ed Miliband in charged propped up by the SNP.”
Infographics from the Conservative’s Twitter account showed images of Miliband, Salmond and even Sinn Fein in number 10.
This imagery continued throughout the campaign, with the media also taking hold of the issue. The Sun’s election day front page read “Stop SNP running the country.”
This message really was the magic bullet, injected into the consciousness of voters and accepted at face value. And it worked…
Just days before election day, a poll of 2,128 found that 43.2 per cent of all voters saw a coalition Government between the Labour Party and the SNP as “illegitimate,” opposed to only 26.9 per cent who said they would feel it was “legitimate” (Survation 2015).
Even more striking, 77 per cent of those who described the potential collation as illegitimate said they had seen all, some or had heard about the Conservative Party election broadcast.
Digital media has truly changed the way political campaigns are run. Once a message takes hold, it can sweep through social media quickly and efficiently, and with little accountability. As time goes on, these elections will be fought and won online, rather than by pounding the streets for hours on end, and as digital media develops, new and exciting techniques to reach potential voters will come into play. More on this later…
Cowley, P & Kavanagh, D (2016) The British General Election of 2015. Political Science: London.
Statista (2020) Total number and the share of population of active social media users in the UK.
Survation (2015) Mail on Sunday: Final General Election Poll. Accessed: https://survation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/mosfgep2128_020515.pdf