After a whirlwind few months of elections in Europe and the U.S., we reflect on how social media contributed to spreading campaign messages, from the U.S. to Germany.
With Germany’s election now over, we decided to take a look at some of the common threads of how elections and political conversation has evolved on social media since late 2016.
We’ve moved from a situation where social media was considered an outside influence on campaigns to one where policy and news cycles are shaped in news feeds and timelines. Sophisticated audience analytics and targeting techniques mean that campaigns are closely tailored to an active, passionate readership.
As noted on this blog before Germany’s recent vote, political campaigns can leverage social media to cut through the media’s take to reach the electorate.
So, what learnings can we take from the last few months of elections?
1) Constant messaging is now standard
Behind every modern political campaign, there’s now a dedicated social media team waiting for the right opportunities to grab online attention.
Election campaigns press units still pump out press releases to journalists and newsrooms each day. Today however, a substantial new level of real time reaction is also expected. During TV debates and in the days immediately before the vote, social media teams go into overdrive.
On the week of the German election, right wing party AfD’s official Facebook page posted 60 times, with an average engagement rate of almost 10,000 per post.
In France, Emmanuel Macron’s official Facebook page was even more active, posting an average of ten times a day in the week running up to the final vote on May 7.
Meanwhile, the UK’s Labour Party spent a huge amount of time pumping out Facebook status updates, images, links, and especially videos. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this messaging comes through video.
In the month leading up to the UK election in June, NewsWhip data showed the Labour page pulled in 2.56 million engagements on 450 posts, while the Conservative page saw 1.07 million interactions on 116 posts.
While political social media strategists need to keep up with the information flows of their target voters, they have to think imaginatively about how not to fall into the trap of preaching solely to the converted.
2) Divisive posts attracted a lot of attention
From the US election last November to the German one last week, each election this year has been imbued with divisiveness.
There’s no denying that many of the social media posts that spoke to this divide, whether over immigration, the economy, social issues or otherwise, were more likely to see extra engagement, visibility, and attention on platforms. Sometimes, these posts went as far as deploying inflammatory language, as well as provocative imagery.
Reviewing the ten most engaged Facebook posts from the official pages of the top five parties (CDU, SDP, AfD, FDP and Die Linke), we see that all bar one (from Die Linke) came from AfD.
As an anti-immigrant party, many of the posts from AfD on social media related to crimes reportedly committed by refugees in Germany, as well as calls for tighter immigration policies and barbed criticisms of other parties and politicians. The AfD’s Facebook engagement was significantly higher than that of the four other parties throughout September, our data shows.
Similarly, in the week before the second round of voting in France’s presidential election last May, one of the most popular posts from all campaigns was a video on right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen’s Facebook page urging the audience to sign a petition to expel ‘foreign criminals’ from the country.
What the data doesn’t show is whether the influence of this type of discourse is compounded by social media algorithms, which favour posts that quickly draw a lot of attention and discussion, or to what degree it influenced actual voting patterns. In the case of AfD, the party ended up taking over 90 seats in parliament. Meanwhile, Le Pen lost her election.
3) The role of non-official pages is significant
In almost every election this year, non-official social media pages had a huge impact on how narratives were framed online.
What we’ve seen in each of the elections analysed on social media over the last few months is that these pages can play a huge role in spreading messages to audiences that they’ve amassed over time. It’s clear that the tone of these often hyper-partisan pages have potentially a large role to play in shaping social media discussion around political issues.
What’s usually less clear is exactly who is behind these pages, and what, if any, affiliation they have to official campaign camps.
Leaving out the influence of publishers in the UK election, some of the most popular Facebook pages during the campaign were pages that spoke to specific views or issues, rather than simply acting as general platforms for candidates and party leaders.
Similarly, during the US election last November, pages such as Occupy Democrats, Donald Trump for President (unofficial), Media Matters, and For America, all built enormous audiences and engagement by sharing content through a prism dictated by their particular political preference. Because of their success during the election, most of these pages continue to operate busily, obscuring the boundaries between campaigns and publishers.
A side effect of some partisan political pages was seen in their influence in spreading ‘fake news’ and general misinformation. During the French election, NewsWhip technology helped newsrooms involved in the CrossCheck initiative to quickly find problematic stories, before they went viral.
As project manager Sam Dubberley explained to us:
“We saw a lot of stories that were slightly right, but took a fact, and pushed it to the edge of truth. I think the one thing we see about well done misinformation is that there’s a little bit of truth in it, which gives it a bit of reality. Then we have to investigate from there on in.”
As always, all data and insights referenced comes from NewsWhip Analytics, which has complete insight into the performance of party and candidate pages across multiple platforms, as well as a bird’s-eye view of the stories and sites that matter for engagement around any event.