A 21st century election: how communications influences the polls

Natasha Egan-Sjodin

In today’s Networked Age, the abundance of communication channels is changing how voters receive political communications – MHP Account Director, Natasha Egan-Sjodin explores its impact on the 2019 general election

Whether you woke up to a BBC alert reminding you it was polling day, picked up a newspaper on the way in to work, or dived straight in to your twitter feed, at some point this morning everyone in the country heard about today’s General Election. But as party press officers frantically scramble to control the final few hours of pre-exit poll coverage, this election has not been fought on the 10 o’clock news.

With information now available at the touch of a button and from a wider range of sources, the way political parties communicate with the electorate has become more challenging. The diminishing power of party-political broadcasts and manifesto launches to influence voters has been replaced over the course of the last few elections with social media. This shift is even more pronounced now than it was in 2017 and is complicating the lives of press officers on all sides of the spectrum. The speed of news is faster than ever, and the pace of new news and commentary has been difficult for the political parties to contain.

But this is not just a shift in channel. Elections are always fought on key battlegrounds, and the concept that voters dictate what these are is not a new one. Political parties no longer control the campaign message. In the 2017 General Election, social media networks shaped the election debate, drawing attention to policies which flew under the radar of the press pack. In 2019, the power dynamic has shifted further.

The rise of populist campaigning – an example of which can be found in the soaring rise of climate change as a key social issue – has shown that ordinary people have control over the message. Activists are drowning out the official campaign narrative and as people move within their own circles, alternative messages are amplified and circulated until they become the main story. The photo of Jack Williment-Barr lying on the hospital floor circulated on Facebook, for instance, has dominated the election debate on the NHS, circulated widely on social media until it appeared in all major traditional news outlets and being heralded as an image which could “derail Boris Johnson’s election campaign”.

These siloed conversations are additionally amplified by increasingly accessible ‘alternative’ (often code for ‘biased’) news sources, with policies from each side being interpreted and re-distributed by opposing campaign groups. The renaming of CCHQ’s twitter account as @factcheckUK and the establishment of a Conservative run website focusing on the Labour manifesto are both attempts to get ahead of the curve on this but have received widespread criticism from mainstream media outlets and social media commentators alike as an attempt to deceive voters.

Commentators have raised concerns that this “echo chamber” has moved our political discourse in a worrying direction, whilst others are quick to emphasise that politics is meant to be passionate. The Times’ Clare Foges, for example, has welcomed the death of the political tribe. Whilst the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe says that our leaders are “motivated not by practical matters but by tribal hatreds.” On both sides of the spectrum, there is no doubt that passions spread ideas, and as people increasingly turn to their own networks to share and perpetuate messages, consuming news that validates theirs views, the tone of debate, particularly in this election cycle, has taken a sharper, nastier form. The networked society lends itself to tribalism and activism – when confronted with ideas from an opposing tribe, it is often the quality and civility of discourse, in person and online, that suffers.

Nowhere is this truer than the conversation around the two major party leaders. The question of who is fit to lead the country as the Prime Minister has become the single most important campaign issue (beyond Brexit) in this years General Election, with leaders unable to control the conversation surrounding their suitability. Press officers and keyboard warriors alike have pushed coverage of the main leadership contests, focusing more than ever on who they are, rather than what they stand for.

Today’s intervention from City A.M., for instance, focuses solely on Corbyn’s unsuitability as Prime Minister, making a clear reference that his personality, rather than his politics, is what they oppose:

“It’s too late, now, to make any further arguments against the nationalisation of industry, high tax rates, hostility to private enterprise or the monstrous irresponsibility of its spending plans. But that’s OK, because this election isn’t about any of that. What today’s vote comes down to is a simple question: are you prepared to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister of this country?”

Where once it was the leader’s job to deliver the message, they are now the primary focus of both the official and opposing campaign narratives. The individual personalities and traits of the party leaders has – in this election – become more important than any policy or plan, reinforcing the idea that who you are is just as important as what you do more than ever.

At 10pm tonight millions will tune in to the BBC’s exit poll – it is, after all, a tradition. But they will also turn to Twitter, Instagram, and their WhatsApp group chats to discuss the outcome and what comes next. Attention will turn from political pundits to their own social circles, as people use their networks to form their opinions and attempt to influence those of others. In the Networked Age, it has become possible for entire political messages to be formed, consumed and distributed, without any involved whatsoever from the main protagonists.

The Networked Age