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Simon Hislop, from Adaptly looks at the role of social media in influencing the political landscape.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an investigation into the ways UK political parties and other campaign groups are using “data analytics for political purposes.” A further sign that the role of social media in influencing the political landscape is of greater importance than ever. But it’s not only “fake news” that is grabbing the headlines, political parties and organisations all over the world are investing in the power of paid social advertising activity.

According to the Electoral Commission, the Conservative Party splashed out £1.2 million on Facebook advertising ahead of the last General Election, seven times the amount spent by Labour. Donald Trump’s spending in the US election on Facebook alone is said to have reached £54 million. His aides told the recent BBC Panorama What Facebook Knows About You programme that Facebook and social media, in general, were vital in securing victory.

The majority of the UK political parties have increased their presence on social media in the run-up to the June 8 general election, and sources claim that campaign managers consider Facebook an especially important channel. Some context will help to explain why.

Demos research from late 2016 found that 23% of UK adult social media users think social platforms help them “understand parties’ policy positions” ahead of an election, and 26% said social media engagement made them more likely to vote.

Just over half of all British social media users admit to having participated in some form of politically related activity on social platforms during the 2015 General Election – a figure larger than for those who reported doing the same on offline channels during the same time period. And 72% of those who turned to social media for political purposes also reported that they felt more politically engaged as a result.

In preparation for 8 June, Labour has significantly upped its focus on social media and insiders say that the party has created a new social media targeting tool called Promote, which it will use to reach individual voters with carefully tailored policy messages.

The system is set up to systematically tweak the party’s core policy proposals, creating over 1,000 different variations, which will then be delivered “super locally” on Facebook. In addition, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has become the first major British political figure to join Snapchat, mainly documenting him attending town hall meetings, talking to journalists, and posing for photographs with members of the public.

Labour is, so far, focusing on sharing “positive” messages about the party, its leader and policies. A contrast to the 2015 General Election when it opted to fiercely attack the governing coalition – in fact, “Tory” (or “Tories”) were among the most frequently used words in the party’s social media communication.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has built on its already Facebook heavy strategy. In 2015, it focused the majority of its posts on encouraging users of the social network to share its content rather than knocking the opposition. This time around, the Conservatives are also running sponsored ads on Instagram ahead of the election. The focus is on using argumentative language combined with highly visual content in an attempt to attract and retain users’ attention.

For its part, Facebook has announced that it is working hard to detect and eliminate fake news on the platform and as part of this process, has deleted tens of thousands of bogus profiles. The social network has also said that it is supporting “Full Fact” – a UK charity specialising on fact checking, “to work with major newsrooms to address rumours and misinformation spreading online during the UK general election”.

Overall, politicians across all major parties now understand the value of social media in speaking directly to voters, creating a more personal and direct rapport. Paid social provides them with extensive targeting opportunities, a way to be more personal and direct, a means to side-step the media and speak immediately to voters, and a method to establish two-way communication and be more interactive.

This extensive flexibility, together with the added value of users sharing campaign posts with their own connections, explains the growing importance of paid social to the UK political parties.

By Simon Hislop, senior media operations director at Adaptly

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