‘Anti-social’ media the main weapon in UK politics?

Following the successful use of new media in the election campaign of President Obama, there is great excitement about the role of ‘social media’ in the UK General Election campaign of 2010.

Non-aligned InVinceCable We Trust campaign

Observers are told that whoever can best harness the power of new media – whether to reach new audiences, to build movements through more engaged conversations, or to tap into new pools of creativity – is most likely to have the key to this election campaign.  It is why Obama, with a grassroots campaign, engaging people from outside of politics, giving them ways of getting involved, behind a positive message of hope was able to successfully use new media.

Just a few weeks of pre-campaign electioneering, sat for the bulk of my day in front of the computer, and making full use of Twitter and Facebook have left me thoroughly depressed as to the prospects for the role that ‘social media’ is set to play in this election.  While there have been some positive campaigns, such as Power2010 and #InVinceCable , these are for the most part NOT run by the political parties.

So far, both Labour and Conservatives deserve on-line ASBOs, such as the degree of  ‘anti-social behaviour’ when it comes to social media.  Rather than talking to the electorate in meaningful, two-way conversations, they are instead shouting at each other, which may have the perverse result of providing them with less time to talk to the electorate.

This has most clearly been exemplified by the ‘#cashgordon‘ versus ‘#cashcroft‘ battle on Twitter recently.  The activist bases of the two parties have been too wound-up, too pre-occupied to notice that, in the case of the Conservative campaign, the open tag nature if its Twitter-feed meant that the front-page of its website could easily be hijacked by negative messages.  By the end of its first day, just a few hundred people had signed up, likely to all be activists already.  By the end of the week, it has only reached a thousand.


Similarly, the Labour campaign (the party of government) fail to understand that be throwing cheap, playground names at the opposition, and by not even attempting to answer policy questions, they make it more likely that the same will come back.

#cashcroft parody from mydavidcameron.com

What is so depressing is that this is nothing new.  The two parties have not undergone a full cultural shift in embracing the full possibilities of what social media can deliver in campaigning.  Instead, they have chosen to repeat the mistakes highlighted by the deliciously viral video, ‘The Last Advertising Agency on Earth‘.

For that is the strategy they continue to adopt, albeit online – negative advertising, or ‘attack ads’.  And there wasn’t even agreement that it worked for old media.  They had a role because of the research that showed negativity (within an overall positive message) attract more interest, provide higher recall of a message/campaign, and thus have a greater impact – especially important in a short-term, four week campaign.  Research suggests that this effect is not universal though, and that it depends on the audience’s level of involvement with what it is going on – the lower the level of involvement, the more likely negativity will work (Dermody & Scullion, 2000; Dermody &Hanmer-Lloyd, 2005).

But of course, it’s also argued that overall, such adverts switch people off politics, and maybe they feed off the declining the levels of trust they encourage.  In terms of source credibility and message factors research, there might be an argument to be made for negative attacks on your opponents helping to mobilise your core support.  In fact, there is more research to justify ignoring your opponent (and their arguments) completely if that’s all you are trying to do (Perloff, 2003).  I’m also a little old fashioned in feeling that some attempt should be made to engage, to persuade, and for a candidate to be held to account for their views.  Dominant political marketing paradigms too easily ignore democratic, and even public relations traditions.

Save Our Sure Starts

Of course, it’s not all that dark, and there’s a mix of party-led and non-aligned initiatives. Labour’s “Save Our Sure Start” which has a strong presence on Facebook has a good potential to reach out beyond the party’s supporters.  Something like Mark Thomas’ “The People’s Manifesto” shows the potential for bringing new and old media together, using stand-up events, and books to engage an audience to create a unique, but credible manifesto.

I have to admit to a soft-spot too for the Parliamentary Education Service’s ‘MP for a Week‘ virtual adventure-style game, which although a little pedestrian, does go beyond the barking headlines to give some insight into what it means to be an MP, and provides for some form of participation.

But that’s besides the point.  The MyDavidCameron.Com website in particular shows the blurring of the lines between political advertising, and online parody.  Beyond their own supporters (and throwing pies at the opposition’s activists), the political parties so far have demonstrated that they have not fully embraced social media.  And worse than that, there is a danger that the investment of energy it requires of activists on keyboards and Blackberries will take them away from talking to talking to real voters – and converting a few swing or non-aligned voters.

I would argue that the kind of people who engage in spaces such as Twitter, or in political debates in social media spaces are typified by high levels of involvement in terms of consumer behaviour.  For party activists, it creates a fantastic space to engage their creative energies.  But for non-aligned individuals such as those in specialist pressure groups, charities and social enterprises (and the parties seem to have forgotten that in most people’s networks, that will be a great deal of such people), their kind of turbo-charged, finger pointing negative campaigning could very well backfire.  Let’s hope they’ve maybe got a little more creative viral content, and some engaging conversation-led ideas up their sleeves that may also provide excuses to mobilise.

And we’ve only just begun. Oh no, we haven’t yet!


Dermody, J. and Hanmer-Lloyd, S. (2005) “Promoting Distrust?  A Chronicle of the 2005 British General Election Advertising Campaigns”, in Journal of Marketing Management, 21, pp.1021-1047

Dermody, J. and Scullion, R. (2000) ” Perceptions of Negative Political Advertising: Meaningful or Menacing?  An Empirical Study of the 1997 British General Election Campaign”, in International Journal of Advertising, 19 (2), pp. 201-223

Perloff, R.M. (2003) “The Dynamics of Persuasion”, New Jersey:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates  [An excellent general resource on persuasion issues]


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