A frequent refrain in UK election coverage at the moment is that this is the UK’s first “Social Media” election. The truth is that five years is an awfully long time in media and technology these days, and the dynamics of communications for this year’s ballot are vastly different to the last…
The Social Media Election
It is certainly true to say that social media usage has increased since the last election in 2010. According to last year’s Ofcom Communications Market Report, the proportion of UK adult internet users who said that they accessed social media sites from home increased from 40% in the first quarter of 2010 to 54% in the first quarter of last year (the most recent figures that are available).
Interestingly, the biggest proportionate increases have been in older age groups, demographics generally targeted by the political parties because of their greater propensity to vote. However, whilst there is greater uptake of the use of social channels, that’s not to say that people consume them in the same ways as traditional media. Certainly my experience to date is that not much of the political coverage I’ve seen on social channels until now has come from the parties themselves; much more is either “linkbait” from traditional media (particularly newspapers), or renegade coverage from satirical or pressure groups focusing on particular issues.
As corporates have been finding out in recent years, transmitting messages across social networks is a much less predictable activity than through traditional media channels – mostly because there’s a backchannel.
The Mobile Election
It’s tricky sometimes to remember five years ago. To be honest, on some days it’s increasingly difficult to remember 5 minutes ago, but that’s a different story. But in 2010 at the time of the last election only a few months had passed since Steve Jobs had announced the iPad to the world. Smartphones were established, but still a relatively nascent market. If you wanted to access the Interwebs, you did it on a PC.
But today – well, now look at us. For the last numbers Ofcom have provided, just over 61% of UK Households possess at least one Smartphone, and over 40% have a tablet of some description. As much as being The Social Media Election, it’s The Mobile Election. If that term actually means anything at all any more. I guess that there are two elements of this: first of all that combined with social networks, election coverage becomes ever more real-time; and secondly that gaffes will be the thing that really fly around the population at speed (especially with a 35+ million smartphone cameras available to catch every one of them). No wonder all the parties appear to be particularly stage-managed this time around…
The No-Newspapers Election
This is the one that really surprised me, but only because I’ve not been paying attention recently…
Back in my University days, my department at Loughborough was mildly famous for doing post-General Election analysis of how much impact the various newspapers had or hadn’t had on the outcome. Did a generally to-the-right Press have a definitive impact on the Governments that were returned? The conclusions from memory were “maybe”, although after the 1992 General Election The Sun wasn’t so timid in sharing it’s opinion.
I’d not really quite appreciated the drop off in newspaper circulation until researching this piece, and the story is quite stark.
Since the 1992 General Election, total UK newspaper circulation has just about halved from over 14 million copies to around 7 million. Even more stark is that in the last election the total daily circulation stood at over 10 million – it’s dropped nearly a third in five years.
Now of course there is consumption of newspaper content online, but that’s skewed in two ways: firstly that online content is increasingly designed to chase online readership and is less news and more listicles and (as I can only describe the Mail Online content) tits and bums. Hardly hard-hitting political coverage, anyway. And secondly because a few of the papers have content behind firewalls – notably the Murdoch titles The Sun and The Times, and also the FT. That leads to weird things – yesterday, for example, a comment piece on The Times that was getting social media coverage because in it’s preview form it could have been interpreted as a scathing attack on the outgoing government (see: https://twitter.com/monkchips/status/587600579494567936 for an example).
The dynamics of journalism at election times in the 1990s was that broadcast media, duty bound to show impartiality at ballot times, would spend quite a bit of their time analysing the editorial direction of the printed press. It might just be me, but as the newspapers continue to decline in circulation, that seems to be happening a bit less now; the challenge for the broadcasters is that the amorphous nature of social media is way less easy to interpret than a nice biased editorial line in a paper.
If this is The Social Media Election, it’s way harder it seems to get a handle on how the traditional media will engage with it, and the influence that they might therefore have as a result.