OPINION - Why Rishi's 'hammer of spod' moment was just the start

So as it turned out in the end, the Prime Minister had been told to use a hammer sideways on by the staff of the jewellery studio he was visiting. But crucial hours before the reality was revealed, Labour had seized on his apparent out-of-touch mishap. ‘Rishi Sunak: not the son of a toolmaker,’ they sneered on X, formerly Twitter. Not, it turned out, true, but funny all the same: the latest in a recent series of actually-quite-good meme-making from the opposition that has riffed on Jaws, Friends and the M&S advert. The Tories themselves, meanwhile, used the same platform to announce the cabinet reshuffle with the help of fire emojis, phrases such as ‘Here we go!’ and splashy graphics.

Critics may have been appalled that the people supposedly running the country — or pitching to supposedly run the country — were using social media in such flippant ways. But both of the above are just examples of how political parties are becoming more creative on social media in an attempt to win hearts, minds and votes. Or at least retweets.

‘We’ve seen more edgy, playful posts from the major parties lately — a vast improvement on those terrible Comic Sans tweets the Conservatives put out in 2019,’ says Matt Navarra, a social media analyst. ‘The Tories in particular seem to be putting a lot of attention into producing timely, slick social content. But the problem is that Rishi Sunak is seen as this polished, posh prime minister, so I wonder if this highly produced content may not endear him to audiences. Sometimes rough and ready can be more effective.’

There’s a saying in Westminster that “Social media may not win you an election, but it can definitely lose you one”

Matt Navarra, social media analyst

The architect behind ‘Brand Rishi’ is social media whizz Cass Horowitz, who is credited with transforming Sunak’s digital persona. Son of the author Anthony Horowitz, Cass masterminded Sunak’s slick, three-minute launch video that was so well-edited that it prompted speculation it must have been made before Sunak stepped down as chancellor. When it comes to politicians using social media, we’ve certainly come a long way since ‘Ed Balls Day’ (when the then-shadow chancellor of the exchequer accidentally tweeted his own name).

‘The use of social media in British politics has evolved dramatically in the past few years,’ agrees Dr James Dennis, senior lecturer in political communication at the University of Portsmouth and author of the book, Beyond Slacktivism: Political Participation on Social Media. ‘MPs now use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms to engage directly with the media, their constituents and their fellow MPs.’ According to Politics Social, 590 British MPs are active on X — more than 90 per cent — with nearly 1,000 tweets from MPs every 24 hours.

Experts point to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — and decisive victory — as a turning point in demonstrating the power of social media to win elections. Now most cabinet ministers will have special advisors (SpAds) to steer their social media, as well as digital strategy teams, while MPs will have at least one team member responsible for content creation. Party leaders and key cabinet or shadow cabinet members will have multiple people approving every tweet.

‘The first social media election in the UK was probably 2015,’ says Dr Dennis. ‘We saw both Labour and the Tories mobilising supporters to share their endorsements online and, like Obama, they used social media to fundraise lots of small donations. Social media went from being a broadcast channel where you’d push campaign messages, to becoming part of a sophisticated strategy and a tool for forming a real connection with your constituents, what we call parasocial relationships.’

Bénédicte Earl is a specialist in digital engagement and social media strategy and has worked on election campaigns for the likes of Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt. ‘Facebook and Instagram are typically run by an MP’s team, while Twitter is more often than not run by MPs themselves,’ she explains. ‘One politician told me that nearly all of their casework requests now come in through social media rather than via email or handwritten letters.’

Earl says that many MPs she’s spoken to say that social media is helpful for getting ahead within their party, and one even cited it as the reason they won their seat. And online expectations are now influencing politicians’ offline behaviour. ‘One MP noted that younger, more tech-savvy colleagues tended to stand in one of a few places in the chamber as they weren’t obscured by the drop-down mics and would therefore have a cleaner shot for use on their social media channels later,’ she says. ‘Another noted that MPs were beginning to speak in soundbites and give shorter speeches because they were more likely to go viral on social media. As one MP put it, “One of the primary reasons now that I make a speech is to get the video, to share the video to people who are not watching the speech [on BBC Parliament].”’

Dr Kevin M Wagner is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. He says that social media will be a defining factor in the UK election next year. ‘It’s the most effective and engaging way to appeal to voters in a large number,’ he says. ‘There’s a big misconception that it’s only targeting younger demographics, but that’s just not the case any more. It’s hugely powerful when used in the right way, but politicians are realising that social media can be fickle. Things that you think will go viral don’t really land, and a tweet from a long time ago that you think no one will pay attention to can land you in a lot of trouble.’

There are other risks, too. Ahead of the 2019 general election, several female MPs stood down, with many citing the abuse they’d received on social media as a factor. Dr Wagner thinks that ‘deep fakes’ (where videos can be altered to spread malicious information) will play a ‘huge part’ in forthcoming elections. As we saw with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when Facebook data was harvested without consent to manipulate swing voters, social media can be used in nefarious ways. ‘Campaigning in these mediums is so new and innovative that it can be hard for regulators to keep up,’ says Dr Dennis.

Despite the best efforts of their teams, Dr Dennis questions the extent to which Sunak or Keir Starmer are truly resonating with audiences on social media. ‘Videos that are highly produced just feel like a TV advert and neither of them feels very authentic and organic,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine either of them engaging with audiences like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does. AOC will go live on Instagram and she’s very natural and open about her life and experiences. That’s what works well.’

In the US, the White House now gives special briefings to content creators and influencers, and they have become a significant part of the election cycle. Navarra says that this could soon happen in the UK, too. ‘TikTok is currently banned from Parliament over security concerns,’ he says. ‘So using influencers would be a way to access and engage with voters on that platform. In the US, surveys have found that some people have more trust in content creators than they do traditional news reporters.’ Nearly 80 percent of young UK adults aged 18-24 consider the internet to be their primary news platform.

Dr Dennis says that influencers have already been targeted by party leaders in election campaigns in the UK. ‘Look at the way Ed Miliband went on Russell Brand’s The Trews in 2015, or Grime4Corbyn,’ he says. ‘In fact, those are both interesting examples of how powerful social media engagement doesn’t always translate into votes. Corbyn had a very strong social media effort in 2019 and ended up with Labour’s worst results in the post-war period.’

But when it works, social media can enhance a push for power in unexpected ways. Dr Dennis credits Boris Johnson’s social media efforts for helping him to secure victory in the EU Referendum. He mentions ‘Beats to Get Brexit Done to’, a 1.5-hour video of Johnson sitting on a train set to chill-out tunes. It’s had 1.3 million views on YouTube.

‘There’s a saying in Westminster that “Social media may not win you an election, but it can definitely lose you one”,’ says Navarra. ‘Either way it’s going to be an entertaining watch.'