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Brexit Ballot

The Rising Clout of Digital Media and the UK Election

December 06, 2019 | by JESS SMEE

Brexit Vote. Photo by Martin Hearn via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Campaigning for the decisive UK election on December 12 is going full tilt. As polarization over Brexit overshadows Britain’s notoriously hard-to-call ballot, what is the impact of the media and, in particular, of digital channels?

The 2016 Brexit referendum stands as a before-and-after marker for British politics. It not only dealt the divisive 52-48 split in favor of leaving the EU, but also jolted the nation’s faith in the pollsters, who repeatedly touted a Remain majority in the run-up to the final result. 

Ahead of the U.K. national election on December 12, the country's fourth national vote in five years, politicians are campaigning full throttle in what pundits dub a “notoriously unpredictable” ballot. As ever, the media is key to woo voters and a leading battleground is online, with major parties vying to outperform each other.

While close tabs are kept on television advertising via the UK's Ofcom regulatory agency, objectivity has long been a pipe dream when it comes to print. Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2019 report on the United Kingdom points to the print industry’s “long tradition of crass impartiality,” ranking the nation with one of the worst scores in Europe, 7 out of 10 points, when it came to the question; “To what extent do candidates and parties have fair access to the media and other means of communication?”

Overall, print’s influence is clearly on the wane - with newspaper sales halving in the U.K. since 2010 - but the major parties still keep careful tabs on front pages, not least because of their sway over the BBC, where agenda-setting programs often echo the papers’ lead stories.

There is a blatant lack of a level playing field when it came to the treatment of the two leading parties. A recent survey by the Loughborough University, which monitored the first week of electoral campaigning, showed how the Conservative Party clocked far more positive than negative newspaper coverage, while the Labour Party’s coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

Who to believe?

Despite its influence in forming opinions, Brits do take their news with a pinch of salt. Reflecting tepid confidence in the headlines, research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released earlier this year showed that just 40 percent of the survey group expressed trust in news overall and less than 10 percent trusted what they read on social media.

But even though public confidence is ebbing and “fake news” earned itself an entry into the Oxford English Dictionary this year, more and more people are getting their news from Facebook, Twitter and co. And social media is firmly at the frontline of political campaigns, which has been dubbed the “wild west" of politics. Recently politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have railed against the Facebook’s lack of editorial scrutiny over adverts, which enables politicians to post lies unchecked.

Even the Electoral Commission, an independent body, set up in 2001 by the British Parliament, has drawn attention to the yawning gap between scrutiny of traditional media and increasingly influential digital channels. This reflects a legal black hole: Electoral law was written long before campaigning went digital. “While it must be clear who paid for printed election campaign advertising, no law covers these ads online,” the Electoral Commission said on its website, voicing a toothless plea to the government and social media companies “to work with us in making it clear to voters who is paying to influence them online”.

Digital media shakes up politics

On Facebook, political advertising is often oblique. Ahead of the December ballot at first glance it is hard to pin down the political leanings of adverts by groups like Working4UK, or Parents' Choice, or Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own? But a report on the BBC showed they were all against the Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn, even though clicking on the Facebook button “Why Am I Seeing This Ad” failed to cast much light on who was behind the campaign.

As our media consumption changes, so do political campaigning strategies. Research carried out by Ofcom showed that young people were more likely to turn to Netflix and Youtube than the BBC and most news is consumed by scrolling down headlines on smartphones through their social media feeds. They rarely click on links and only occasionally read or watch entire articles or clips.

Political strategists know that this superficial and distracted approach to news means that shocking quotes or amusing stories are likely get them further than policy explainers. This sparks a race to go viral with memes and witty put-downs. In this election also there is a worrying rise in political parties’ digital offensive obscuring where information is actually coming from.

The Conservative’s digital team, for example, bought Google ads for searches such as “the Labour Party”, made a fake Labour manifesto site and also created another site which claims to show the cost of a Corbyn government based on figures which the fact-checking website FullFact described as “largely meaningless”.

The party has recruited a new digital team, led by two 20-something New Zealanders, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, who were behind the successful digital campaign that helped re-elect Scott Morrison’s Liberal party in Australia in May 2019.

They sparked criticism during the prime-time televised debate between Corbyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson by rebranding the Conservative Party’s twitter channel as a “fact-checking” service to endorse Boris Johnson, temporarily failing to mention the party on its profile. The move was slammed by established fact-checking organizations and Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, who called it “dystopian,” drawing parallels with disinformation underway in authoritarian states.

Labour have also blurred the boundaries between independent fact-checking and party political campaigning by creating a subsidiary website, The Insider, designed to scrutinize political statements.

“This election will break all established conventions and the fact is, it’s on a knife edge, so anything can skew it,” said Sarah Cheung Johnson, a social media campaigner for the Liberal Democrat party in Cambridgeshire“. And the noise of social media could play a much greater role than ever before, especially on younger voters who don’t go anywhere near Sunday papers." 

She mentioned how political parties have to be on their guard against disinformation, citing the example of an unfounded “news” story about Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson attacking a squirrel suddenly went viral on Twitter, forcing her to refute it on traditional media.

Politicians are increasingly on the defensive. Aware of the risk of making a gaffe during a long interview, which might well come back to haunt them in the form of a damaging viral YouTube clip, short sound bites are often favored over in-depth interviews. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of smart phones means they are perpetually in the public gaze, as anyone can post a clip, anytime. It is no surprise that the need to prevail on Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm inevitably resonates in the political basecamp where strategy and policy decisions are made.

As the big date nears, there is everything to fight for in this election which will likely steer the direction of Britain’s EU relationship for a generation. Meanwhile, social media strategies are increasingly being accused of using underhand tricks to mislead voters, underscoring the lack of regulation overseeing this key opinion-building tool. Opinion polls so far give the Conservative Party a clear lead, but public opinion can shift fast - just as it did away from Theresa May in the weeks ahead of the 2017 election. Meanwhile, social media strategists know all too well, who believes the polls these days?

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper among others. She is an editor for SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI Blog.

First published on Euractiv.com

Photo: flic.kr/p/23G1ZNi, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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