GE 2019: The Online Battleground

By Sarah Belger

With general elections now seeming to take place every two years, you might expect politicians to be running out of things to say and places to say them (where people are still listening). Faced with an electorate with neither the time for (nor the faith in) manifestos, the social media presence of all the main parties is more central than ever. Judging by how many young people have registered to vote since the election was called, it’s bound to have a significant impact. 

One thing that’s clear so far is that the use of video on all platforms, especially by members of the Conservatives and Labour, has been a popular method of attracting social media attention. Labour’s first campaign video was posted to Facebook within minutes of the election being called in the House of Commons, which follows on from their online success during the 2017 election. While Theresa May appeared out of touch whenever she appeared on video, Labour managed to present Jeremy Corbyn as the head of an innovative new campaign. 

This time round however the Tories are trying to build a new image which appeals more to the younger demographic of voter, while still maintaining support from their traditional following. One of the most viewed campaign videos on social media so far has been the BBC Question Time clip of a young Conservative voter explaining his view that the Conservatives are the only party who will truly respond to the will of the people. This reflects a change in the party’s campaign strategy as they are aware that images of Boris Johnson will not attract this new generation of voter, but rather messages from someone who could be seen as more relatable. Labour’s most popular videos so far have largely continued to place Corbyn at the forefront, displaying a leadership which they believe to already can appeal to the masses. 

One tactic which can be seen consistently across all major parties is the repetition of set phrases. The Conservatives want to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Labour plan on ‘Rebuilding Britain’ and bringing about ‘Real Change’, the Liberal Democrats promise to ‘Stop Brexit to Build a Brighter Future’ and the Green Party focusing on climate change and a ‘Green New Deal’. The most successful online posts have been short text-based statements showing that politicians are aware they’re reaching people who are scrolling through endless Facebook timelines and Instagram feeds. They want something which will stick easily in people’s minds and which they can fit into a hashtag so that it can easily be shared further. 

Unfortunately, there is also ever-growing concern that social media has not only been used to spread catchy slogans or videos of a dynamic leader. The danger of ‘fake news’ has been made abundantly clear. We’ve seen the scandal it has led to in the United States and how this can lead to distrust in leading politicians, but the problem seems now to be just as prevalent in the UK. The overwhelming majority of offences have been committed by the Conservative Party; 88% of the Tories’ advertising has been deemed misleading, compared to 0% of Labour’s. Following an interview with Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer on Good Morning Britain, the Conservative Party posted an edited version which portrayed him as incapable of giving a coherent answer to any of the questions he was asked, when in reality this was not the case. Furthermore, during the televised debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson on 19th November, the Conservative Campaign HQ Twitter account completely rebranded to become ‘FactCheckUK’. The party was accused of imitating an independent fact-checking organisation in order to spread pro-Conservative sentiments during the debate. While the handle of the account remained the same (@CCHQPress), the name changed to Fact Check UK, the banner and profile picture of the account changed to no longer have any resemblance with those of the party and the colours of the account completely changed. Criticism has been directed at the fact that although if you looked closely at the account you could see that it was still part of the Conservative’s press campaign, for most people scrolling through their feeds it would be extremely difficult to recognise this. 

This ultimately leads to the question of where the responsibility should lie in terms of ensuring the validity of online election campaigning and news. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have promised that they’re working towards creating a more secure online space, but at the end of the day, if we can’t trust our politicians to run an honest election campaign, how can we trust them with running our country?