It was hyped as the U.K.’s first-ever social-media general election, but the reality turned out to be rather different. When British voters go to the polls May 7, most are likely to have been informed by tuning in to old media coverage, including traditional TV newscasts, not Twitter or Facebook.
Twitter is an essential tool for journos, celebrities and other attention seekers, but still ignored by the vast majority of voters. Social media, however, is influential in pushing people to different news sources. Twitter spikes have been evident during key moments in the election campaign, often related to what’s happening on TV.
“Social media doesn’t operate in isolation, it is part of the whole ‘mashed up’ picture,” says Charlie Beckett, a former TV journalist who runs media think tank Polis at the London School of Economics.
With paid-for political advertising banned in the U.K., pols have been busy on Twitter and other online platforms.
Some of these depictions help to reboot their staid images — or attempt to smear a rival party.
On Twitter, the Labour Party’s arguably geeky leader Ed Miliband’s face has been Photoshopped on the bodies of James Dean, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger. On YouTube Miliband was depicted by the Conservatives as a puppet dancing to the Scottish Nationalists’ tune.
Commentators dismiss such portrayals as ephemeral, to say the least.
Says the Economist’s Anne McElvoy: “Politics and social media is a serious business, or so we’re told though the evidence is as flimsy as a party’s spending commitment.”
Beckett says, “There is more media available than ever before, but a lot of it just isn’t cutting through. We’ve got Vice News and Buzzfeed, as well as YouTube. Vice and Buzzfeed both want to be taken seriously. They saw their election coverage as a test of their desire for credibility. But by far the most important thing in this election is TV news. All the research shows it is how politicians perform on the flagship news programs and during the TV leaders’ debates that influences the way people vote.”
Becket reckons Twitter has been less influential in the 2015 campaign than five years ago because it is no longer new.
And with only around 20% of the U.K. population using the social-networking site, it is not representative of the country as a whole, he points out.
Richard Sambrook, ex-director of BBC Global News, agrees that TV is still the main event: “There have been problems with the leaders’ debates, but TV remains dominant. In the early part of the campaign the leaders’ debates set the agenda.”
In the 2010 election three TV showdowns between the three main party leaders galvanized the campaign.
It was the first time in the U.K. that agreement had been reached between pols and broadcasters for live TV debates to be held during a general election.
Five years later, Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party spinners were determined to avoid a rerun of the 2010 debates. The only live TV debate on which Cameron agreed to appear was a seven-way exchange with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, far-right party UKIP, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and Greens.
Broadcast on commercial web ITV without ads, the two-hour marathon was watched by 7 million viewers compared with 9.4 million for ITV’s three-way debate five years ago.
“Throughout the election, political parties have exerted an unprecedented degree of control over the media,” says media commentator Steve Hewlett. “We saw it with the leaders’ debates. It was extremely difficult to reach agreement with the broadcasters. During the election there have been no daily, open press conferences. When the politicians do allow the cameras in, the access is highly orchestrated.”
He added, “I have never before seen this level of manipulation by the political parties during a British general election.”
Sambrook agrees: “Media coverage of the election has been very stage managed. As a result, the campaign is devoid of spirit.”
One reason for the clampdown is that polls suggest an electoral stalemate between Conservatives and Labour. There is a consensus among political pundits that once again no party will win outright, and as in 2010, deals will have to be struck between parties to form a working government.
The upshot is that all the main contenders have generally avoided giving the media enough rope to hang themselves, and despite the growth in social media and online platforms, this strategy looks to have worked.