Is Social Media becoming the newest election battleground?

Social Media
Social Media is quickly becoming the largest battleground in elections, and this year's Senedd election is no different. Source: Walt Jabsco (via. Flickr)
In this year's Senedd election social media campaigning has been used more and more by political parties looking to see gains in the Senedd.

By Katherine Seymour | Contributor 

It is undisputable that social media has become a huge force in politics in the last 5 years. In UK-wide general elections social media use, particularly by Labour and the Liberal Democrats has been a huge chunk of campaign spending. This year’s Senedd election, which takes place on May 6 has been coined, however, ‘Wales’ first social media election’.

In UK general elections, parties put huge amounts of their budget into social media campaigning. Political parties’ spending is capped at £30,000 for each constituency that it contests in a general election. If a party stood a candidate in each of the 650 UK constituencies, its maximum spend would total £19.5m. 

The Liberal Democrats spent the most on social media advertising  in the lead-up to the 2019 General Election having spent £698,928 in the 2 months before the election. The next biggest spenders according to Elle were the Labour party (£563,182 in the 90 days leading up to the election)  followed by the Conservatives (£248,665 in the 90 days before the election). 

Social media is thought to have accounted for half of campaign spending in the 2019 General Election. The last Senedd election in 2016, however, was before the advent of political parties utilizing social media as a campaigning tool.

Facebook has been used by parties across the board in Wales including: Welsh Labour, Welsh Conservatives, Liberal democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, UKIP and Abolish the Welsh Assembly and others.

The targeting of adverts by Welsh Labour and the Welsh conservatives has been somewhat more general with Labour framing themselves as the party of continuity and safety and the Conservatives presenting themselves as the party of unity with the UK against Welsh independence.

Facebook’s advertising team has made clear that parties are targeting their weak spots as they aim to reach voters more traditionally resistant to their messaging.

Welsh Labour know that they are subject to criticism levelled against them in terms of the handling of the pandemic. Therefore, they are pointing to the vaccine distribution, using vocabulary such as “our vaccines”, and presenting themselves as the party of continuity at such an unstable time.

On the other hand, Plaid Cymru have targeted the 16–17-year-old voters. Welsh independence has become increasingly popular among younger voters and with this Senedd election marking the first time 16 and 17-year olds can vote, Plaid Cymru have been keen to gain their support.  

Welsh conservatives have so far failed to form a government in Wales, in contrast to their recent success in England. Therefore, they have tried to appeal to a unionist base in Wales which, in recent times, had been almost three fourths of the Welsh population. 

In the case of the Liberal Democrats, opposition groups have questioned their willingness to work in Government with Labour as well as their effectiveness in government. By separating Liberal Democrat’s Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education, policy choices from the Labour party’s actions, they are clearly aiming to draw voters who have benefited. 

Party supporters, particularly of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour party have taken to TikTok in grassroots campaigning most likely due to these parties holding support in younger demographics.

Plaid Cymru supporters have been using the app to share their reasons for moving away from the traditional Labour vote and towards the highest polling Welsh independence party. They have also suggested using the second vote for Labour to prevent the Conservatives gaining regional seats. 

There have been disputes over Welsh handling of election laws in the run up to the election on May 6 as the laws do not yet regulate social media advertising, meaning that parties can run adverts where it is not completely transparent as to the political interests of the advertiser. 

Rules regulating this were introduced in Scotland in time for their parliamentary election on the same date and will be regulated for the next Westminster election. However, despite receiving support from Senedd members, the regulation was not passed before the dissolution of the Senedd

Controversy over social media campaigning has made headlines in recent years. Abuses of power are very much possible in social media as seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal regarding the referendum on EU membership. 

Social media allows parties to reach voters who may not always see traditional campaigns. However, as Laura McAllister wrote in Wales Online: “the real problem is that most social media is driven by the monetisation of public discourse and, importantly, of disagreement. Cleary, there’s more money to be made from angry rows than civil consensus. Plus, social media was born in an era characterised by polarisation and populism.”

Time will tell if social media will become the battleground on which elections are fought, however it certainly seems as though this is the direction which parties are going in.

Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.

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