Making social science accessible

04 Dec 2023

Politics and Society

Kate Dommett explores the changes in digital campaigning that have been taking place since the last UK election in 2019, suggesting that as new financial resources become available,  digital campaigning – especially on new platforms – is likely to play a bigger role than ever.

A lot has changed since 2019. The last time the UK was headed for a general election we’d not heard of Covid, conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East were remote prospects and we had no idea that the next Prime Minister would have not one, but two successors. Fast forward four years and not only has the political agenda dramatically changed, but so too has the context in which politicians are trying to secure electoral victory.

As Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer and other British party leaders begin to build their campaign machinery for a likely 2024 election, they are acutely aware of the need to adapt their campaign plans for modern times. And they are not alone. With record numbers of elections around the world in 2024, politicians of all nations and backgrounds will be working out how to wage their next election campaigns.

One crucial area of change concerns the use of digital technology. Digital campaigning has become an established part of any modern campaign arsenal. From the now familiar use of websites and social media pages to more modern techniques such as targeted advertising and WhatsApp channels, campaigns continually evolve their use of digital tech. They do so to reflect our online behaviours, but also in reaction to the changing rules and norms of online spaces. This means each election campaign has a unique dynamic, resulting in new and innovative practices alongside more established techniques.

Looking ahead to the next general election there are already signs that we’re likely to see digital technology used more intensively than in 2019. At the last election, political parties were heavily reliant on advertising tools provided by the social media platforms Meta and Google. We therefore saw record levels of spending with both companies, with parties spending just over six million pounds on nearly 46,000 Facebook adverts, and just under three million pounds on just over 650 google ads. The dominance of these two platforms and the emphasis on paid media reflected the ease with which social media adverts could be created. The lean to this kind of campaigning also stemmed from the availability of targeting criteria that allowed campaigners to send specific ads to specific people, and of inbuilt A/B testing experimental technique that varies content to determine which is most effective at delivering a desired goal.

Roll forward four years and campaigns are about to have access to levels of unprecedented funding (if their funders donate!). Following legislative change, parties can now spend £54,010 in each constituency compared to a previous limit of  £30,000. This means that cumulatively the limit on election spending has gone from around £19 million to £34 million. The additional cash that some parties (and we’re focusing on larger parties here) can raise and spend may of course be devoted to a number of different causes, but one of the quickest and easiest ways of spending cash is on online political advertising and digital content. Its therefore likely that we’ll see ever more spending on Facebook and Google than in the past.

And yet, in noting this change, it’s clear that the appeal of Facebook in particular isn’t quite what it once was. One reason is changes to what’s possible. In recent months the Council of the EU has issued new rules restricting targeting and ad delivery techniques, and there have even been suggestions that all targeted advertising could be banned on Meta. Such developments have prompted Meta to offer a subscription for users to not have ads in Europe, meaning the audience for targeted adverting may be in decline. Whilst the UK is no longer directly subject to EU measures, Meta has hinted that it may enact a European-wide responses, effectively subjecting the UK to changes initiated within the EU.

Platforms themselves have also created new verification processes for those wanting to place political ads. In the UK, this involves the advertiser confirming their identity by sending a passport and proof of address, requirements that significantly raise the barrier to placing ads as previously no verification was required.

Another reason for the falling appeal of Facebook advertising is platform demographics. Facebook is still widely used (by 77% of UK adult internet users), but its age profile tends to skew older. Meanwhile, a platform such as TikTok, whilst less widely used (by 42% of UK adult internet users), is the preserve of younger voters, with 85% of internet users aged 16-24 having used TikTok in 2022. For campaigners trying to reach particular demographics, Facebook may no longer be the answer. Whilst it is still the place to contact older voters, other voters can be better contacted on other platforms.

As a result, there is now a clear incentive for parties to create audience specific content tailored to different platforms. We are therefore likely to see attention and, where possible, spending devoted to other platforms. Reflecting this, major political parties have begun to advertise jobs for video creators and meme producers. For example, it has been reported that the Conservative Party has hired digital experts Topham Guerin and strategist Isaac Levido from New Zealand and Australia, who have reportedly used accounts on TikTok and Twitch to great effect in recent political campaigns. For these reasons, we’re likely to see campaigners branch out from the established social media networks to develop content and profiles on a range of different digital media platforms.

Alongside this change, there are signs that we are likely to see campaigns working with influencers, as has happened elsewhere in the world. Now a widely accepted aspect of commercial marketing, some recent election campaigns have seen parties and politicians promoting their message via political influencers. For example, in the US there have been examples of the Democrats using influencers to spread a get out the vote message at the 2022 mid-terms. There are also super PACs (non-party campaign groups able to raise and spend significant sums of money on election campaigns) such as American Bridge, who deliberately use online influencers and podcasters to target a diverse group of women.

Similar trends have emerged in Canada, where prominent Twitch streamer Imane Anys (aka Pokimane) played a live game on Twitch with the leader of the left-of-centre New Democratic Party. These examples suggest that political campaigns are looking for new ways to connect with voters – we may see UK campaigners increasingly tempted to work with influencers with electorally important audiences.

Alongside these trends, new and as yet opaque tactics may emerge as campaigns are developed. But what remains constant is that whilst digital will be used in innovative and newsworthy ways, campaigns will also continue to employ many of the methods they have used before. What is interesting therefore is what they choose to change in the way digital technology is used and why. These questions can reveal important insights into the strategy behind party campaigns and the availability of financial resource.

By Kate Dommett, Professor of Digital Politics, University of Sheffield.

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