Is Social Media Campaigning a Big Joke?


According to a social media data analysis tool a few days before the German general election the leading performers on social media were the far right AfD, who are bested only by the party created to satirise them: Die Partei. The Guardian reported that Tilo Kmieckowiak of Quintly was surprised that outrageous satire was topping the data their firm's tool was gathering. Quintly's view is almost beyond satire, although I am sure Die Partei could give it a try.

Those data results raise a serious point about the social media gurus that sell their services to political campaigns. For example Jim Messina was allowed to soak up an inordinate proportion of the marketing spend of the official remain campaign in the UK's 2016 EU membership referendum. Messina had come to fame for guiding Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008 and through his Messina Group consultancy helping Obama win re-election. His next big win was a surprising choice in that he helped David Cameron win the 2015 UK general election, despite Cameron clearly seeking to modernise his Conservative Party along the lines of the US Republican Party. Messina's reputation took a major hit the following year when for the first time he lost an electoral battle, which resulted in the UK voting to leave the EU. Or did it?

It is more likely that Messina's claims of being able to win elections through big data was a massive overstatement of the facts. Obama's election as president was not the product of big data recruiting a grassroots movement, but the outcome of people fed up with a seemingly endless Iraq War and its consequent drain on the national finances. Just like Bill Clinton and George W Bush before him and Donald Trump after him, Obama won the presidency on an unfulfilled promise to stop foreign military interventions. The 2012 re-election of Obama took place when many were disappointed in his presidency, but with a much smaller margin of victory than 2008 there is no indication that big data won it for Obama. It is even more clear that Messina's big data did not win the British general election in 2015. The margin of victory was accounted for by the Conservatives winning seats from the Liberal Democrats by campaigning in eurosceptic seats on the 2010 Liberal Democrat policy of holding an EU membership referendum. No big data was required to inform Conservative Central Office that the Liberal Democrats' Southwest England heartlands were deeply eurosceptic.

Politicians are often far too busy to properly understand all this new-fangled techie stuff, so they are an easy sell for political consultants who claim to have the software to tell them precisely which voters to target. They hammer home the sales pitch with dubious statistics that most people in the UK and US get their daily news from Facebook or Twitter. Even if those statistics are correct what they mean is that few people pay attention to news bulletins, newspapers, or media websites, and only learn of politics if someone they follow on Facebook or Twitter mentions something political. There is no evidence that social media campaigns that centre on big data win elections, but there is plenty of evidence that politicians with limited knowledge of tech can be persuaded to devote large sums of money to political consultants who claim otherwise.

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