Social media

Hey, big spender: In the past week, the Tories shelled out £86,023 on 71 ads on Facebook.

Political parties and party leaders are using social media to send their messages to voters. Some people argue that the whole field is too unregulated and needs stronger oversight.

  • How do parties use social media?

    Political parties use social media to post information designed to encourage voters to vote, campaign for them or donate money. They use both ‘organic’ and ‘paid-for’ posts. Organic material (often in the form of videos) is posted by political parties and their leaders for supporters to ‘share’ and ‘like’ at no extra cost to the parties. Paid-for posts may be aimed at particular groups of voters through what is called micro-targeting by using Facebook’s advertising tools, for example. This means that the posts can be directed at specific groups of voters, like over-60s living in Wales, or football supporters in Newcastle.

    Political party campaigns test thousands of versions of different advertisements. Unlike party election broadcasts for TV and radio, designed to be seen or heard by as many people as possible, advertisements on social media maybe aimed at smaller numbers of people.

  • Which forms of social media do political parties use?

    Political parties and their leaders generally have Facebook pages which can be followed by their supporters. Information and videos are posted there and supporters encouraged to like and share them. Local MPs also have Facebook pages designed to build local constituency support, and candidates will seek to associate themselves with local campaigns with their own Facebook presence. Parties may also use instagram to share photos and videos, and WhatsApp to send private messages to party activists and supporters. Twitter is seen as an effective way to broadcast news to a more politically-engaged audience, including media figures and commentators. While Youtube can host longer political party videos, political leaders are increasingly on Snapchat, seeking younger audiences and first-time voters.

  • In what way is social media ‘unregulated’?

    Strict rules apply on what can be broadcast in radio or television. But political parties are not bound by the same rules on social media. Material which may be regarded as misleading or even untrue can be posted online. The Conservative Party provoked a political storm during a recent televised leaders’ debate when its press office’s Twitter account misleadingly rebranded itself “FactcheckUK” to challenge statements made by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

    The UK Electoral Commission wants tougher rules on political campaigning online. At present, parties and candidates must report their overall spending on political advertising online. But the commission says there should be greater transparency, so that it is clear who is placing the advertising, and who is responsible for it. It also wants tougher measures to protect against foreign influence in UK elections, and strong enforcement powers over the social media companies themselves. Additionally, the UK information commissioner is concerned with the way political parties gather data on voters and then use it to target information at them. All political parties have been contacted by the commission to remind them of their obligation to gather consent from voters about any personal data shared.

  • Who else uses social media for political campaigning?

    Many groups, including trades unions, charities (like Amnesty International) and social movements (such as Extinction Rebellion), use social media for political campaigning. Again, the UK Electoral Commission wants social media by UK campaigning organisations to be subject to clearer regulation, particularly in the run up to elections.

  • How effective is social media campaigning?

    Many people believe that social media campaigning is highly effective in motivating people to vote. Facebook itself has run experiments that suggest it can boost election turnout significantly. During the current UK election campaign, it sent messages to users, urging them to encourage others to register to vote.

    It’s been estimated that Donald Trump’s presidential 2016 election campaign spent about $70 million (£54,500,000) on Facebook advertising. President Trump has 67 million Twitter followers.

    The victorious Vote Leave campaign in the UK European Union referendum spent most of its advertising budget on Facebook. According to its campaign director Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave spent £2.8 million on digital communication in the 10-week official campaign. The bulk was spent in the last two weeks of the campaign, and especially in the last five days.

  • What do the social media companies themselves think?

    Twitter recently announced a ban on political advertising. Google has banned some forms of micro-targeting and also false statements in political advertising. Facebook continues to allow political advertising, but has taken some steps to require greater transparency. Experts and academics in social media campaigning say that Facebook advertising can be an important tool for new candidates to get foot in the door. Currently, Facebook allows candidates to make false statements.

    This briefing is produced by The Day in association with Engage Public Policy, with special thanks to Professor Leighton Andrews of Cardiff University.

You Decide

  1. Should the UK regulate political advertising?


  1. Summarise the arguments for and against regulating political advertising.

Word Watch

Party election broadcasts
In the UK, the Communications Act 2003 prohibits political advertising on television or radio. Instead, parties are given slots that are about five minutes long and free of charge on broadcast channels, using a formula set by Parliament.
UK Electoral Commission
An independent body, set up in 2001 by the British Parliament to regulate party and election finance, and it sets standards for how elections should be run.
In politics, transparency is used as a means of holding public officials accountable and fighting corruption.
Foreign influence
The Conservative Government has been criticised for suppressing publication of a report into Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 EU referendum. The Government argued that there wasn’t enough time to release it ahead of the general election. However, Labour and Scottish National Party politicians accused No 10 of refusing to recognise the scale of Russian meddling.
Trades unions
Trade unions are organisations with members who are usually workers or employees. Unions look after their members’ interests at work, such as pay and working conditions, maternity and paternity leave.
Allow political advertising
Actor Sacha Baron Cohen recently described Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”. He argued that the company, which allows untruthful political advertising, would have allowed Hitler to run propaganda on its platform.

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