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Political Social Media Spending and the Prime Minister’s New Clothes

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I can’t help thinking that the ever increasing bills for “online engagements” are a re-hash(tag)ed tale of the Prime Minister’s New Clothes.

Like every self-respecting political activist, I’ve lost uncountable hours trudging around housing estates come rain, shine or inevitably, during a winter by-election, snow, wondering why on earth we were delivering more fodder for the recycling bins and further irritating potential voters with leaflet after boring leaflet.

Every election, be it local, national, European, even when I was the candidate, the uncomfortable thought of “will anyone even read this?” grows increasingly hard to suppress as your ink stained hands are nipped by dog and letter-box alike and “No More Leaflets!” signs are erected against the avalanches of dead rainforest you furtively stuff through the door. And yet, it’s a sort of prisoners’ dilemma, because to stop makes your party noticeable by their absence and in the dead heat of election periods no stone, or leaflet, can be left unturned.

Inevitably, given our fixation with social media, online engagement and all things digital, this long race to the bottom has become incredibly lucrative for social media platforms and some of the political parties are throwing the metaphorical kitchen sink at “online engagement” to act in conjunction with the half tonne of Get Out the Vote leaflets.

According to documents leaked to the BBC, the Tories are now spending over £100,000 per month on Facebook in an attempt to attract attention and votes, apparently convinced that such online engagement might make a blind bit of difference come the General Election. The Labour Party spend is thought to be about a tenth of this, around £10,000 per month, not a paltry sum itself.

But does throwing money into the pot actually work or is another example of politicians measuring success by financial input not results? The engagement figures suggest that, just like with anything, planning not budgets is key. In contrast to the huge Conservative spends, UKIP are reportedly spending a mere £150 per month and yet they are getting over double the “likes”, shares and comments on their page than the Conservatives are on theirs.

Labour, being deeply unlikeable, trail both parties with just 211,600 page likes, less than a quarter of UKIP’s. Arguably, this is down to how the parties use their Facebook pages; UKIP’s acts as a forum for debate, historically causing considerable headaches for the party’s press team, whereas the Conservatives and Labour use theirs as another website filled with press releases and statements of success to be shared by adoring followers.

This is just Facebook but of course there is also Twitter, the budget for which we don’t know. Like Facebook, Twitter is used to rope in the younger voter – the highest frequency age group for both services is 25-34 year olds, hardly the traditional Conservative voting block – and yet it is used in hugely different ways by the political parties. Twitter charges users for the success of their “engagements”, be it a retweet, a mention, a follow, a click to your profile, even a click to expand a tweet, and it provides a best practice media guide for (mostly American) politicians.

Apparently adding a photo increases the percentage of your retweets by up to 62% while a hashtag boosts engagements by a further 30%; good news for those horrendous #LabourDoorstep tweets that befoul my timeline every Saturday. But once again the question arises; what does this even MEAN? Does online engagement work or are political parties just pissing money up the wall in the dash for the latest advertising trend? Political parties are not like new iPhones or trainers; you don’t see an advert for the Tories and think “gosh, I have to have them!” then keep the thought in mind next time you pass a polling station.

So where it matters, the aforementioned polling stations, is this all just a smoke screen for arrogant, well-paid social media “gurus” to spin a new realm of the Prime Minister’s new clothes? I accept my knowledge on this is sparse, but I cannot help thinking that this fixation is wasted on the cynical British public who prefer to use Twitter for parody and contempt; no verified political account will ever garner the attention or fondness of UKIP Trumpton or Ed Balls and his own name and to think otherwise leads to the over use and over concentration of sparse resources.

Our politicians should understand that the internet is there for hilarity and take it with a pinch of salt, despite what their advisors say; otherwise, their expensive “engagements” will join their leaflets as another cause of election fatigue, no matter how many snazzy videos of David Cameron they upload.


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