How can social media help political campaigns?

by | May 15, 2024

During the past years, social media has grown to play a significant role in political campaigns. Ever since social media has started to be more and more relevant in everyday life, it has transformed the ways political candidates  approach campaigning.

Some of the key points, in which it has caused changes are the interaction between the players of politics (meaning the candidates, voters and supporters/donors), intensification of the political competition and additional methods of fundraising.

The intense use of social media made it possible for candidates to meet new potential voters and donors, both of which  are vital to the political process. This also has a “connecting” effect between politicians and the electorate, having a “humanizing” effect which does not only have a philosophical/moral value, but it also adds to the credibility of candidates, easily transformed into a competitive advantage in the political competition. Interactivity can also add to the development of better political messages, incorporating citizens’ opinions into political plans etc. As a result of this, the electorate can experience increasing competitiveness, making elections more competitive and the sense of being more meaningful – once again something badly needed for credibility. All this have started to change the methods and somewhat the content of the communication as well: more active use of social media has changed elements of the political game, allowing all political actors, incumbents and newcomers alike to speak directly to constituents on every possible subject, from policy issues to what they had for dinner, if they feel the need to. And of course, we shall not forget about the background of politics: raising funds, which is at least as important as the messages themselves. Social media can be used by political newcomers as well to raise money and gain recognition (especially if they arrive to politics with some established background here, already having been developed a base with previously existing monetization options), which could help them compete against actors with more actual political background and base, while the latter can incorporate this option into their existing fundraising toolbox – and if done well, gaining a lot not only in funds but also in recognition and credibility. This  was nicely demonstrated by  Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, when his pioneer use of social media  did not only help his campaign profoundly, but  also  gave a fresh image to an otherwise seasoned politician (already served in the US Senate etc.), which provided him with a serious advantage over the veteran John McCain (who, on the other hand  also gained a lot during the Republican primaries, when the overall outreach of the CNN-YouTube debates  made it possible for him to spread his somewhat differing “maverick” position on e.g. treatment of detainees of the “war on terror”). Additionally, the fact of an intense social media presence  did not only assist in the Obama campaign in fundraising, but the fact of the pace of fundraising   became a piece of news in “ordinary” media soon – which other candidates from the same party later has also tried to follow, some of them quite successfully, e.g. Bernie Sanders during his 2016 campaign.

As the result of the factors mentioned above, the number of political candidates leveraging social media has steeply increased, as has the extent and effect of their online reach. We can conclude that today, social media has become an essential part of an effective political campaign strategy, with an undeniable importance (and it may be important to add, that this is also true to business activities and strategies of business actors, showing You its actual importance). And as technology continues to evolve, meaning the development and emergence of new social media channels continuously, while some of them slowly fading into irrelevance, we can expect social media not only to play an even more significant role in future political campaigns, but also to represent an ever-changing, challenging field to all, who are interested in politics or who have anything to do with participating or campaigning in the future.

Risks and negative effects of the use of social media

Of course, nothing is without risks. Social media, while beneficial in many ways, also poses several risks when used in politics. Some of those that we have already managed to identify are related to the spread of misinformation, damaging simplification of otherwise complex political messages and privacy concerns.

Various social media platforms can easily be and are being used to spread misinformation and fake news among the audience, which can not only distort the public’s understanding of political issues, but also generate interactions and debate along false arguments and based on false “facts”. This negative effect is further enhanced by the phenomena known as “polarization” and “echo chambers”. Social media can contribute to the polarization of political discourse, allowing positions early deemed to be too extreme to gradually become accepted and later even to become dominant on the competing political sides. In  “echo chambers”,  the audience is exposed primarily to viewpoints that align with their own, reinforcing their already existing positions related to complex issues, practically creating an image of debates not existing at all. It  is an easy way of manipulation and influence of public opinion through targeted advertising and targeted misinformation campaigns, which may well serve the interests of various political competitors (especially when focused on a specific time, e.g.  elections), but on the long term it has serious negative effects on the awareness of the society and its resilience towards misinformation. The reduction of complex issues into “sound bites” or social media posts can lead to oversimplification of complex political issues, and the preference of social media providers towards these kind of messages – which they can realize in the tweaking of their algorithms – can turn those mostly private (but in some cases, state-owned or backed) companies into  “secret” supporters of various political positions, not in the name of transparency, to put it very nicely. They can actually operate as lobbyists without the actual laws which are tailored to those activities in many states or are directly applicable  in the EU. Talking about responsibility and accountability, social media does have a negative impact on those as well: use of social media in political campaigns can sometimes lead to a lack of accountability, as many politicians can have and do have the tendency to use these platforms to bypass traditional media scrutiny and control – while arguing for the advantages mentioned in the previous chapter.

Privacy concerns and data security risks derive from the fact that social media platforms collect and retain massive amounts of personal data, which can be vulnerable to hacking and data breaches, and  can easily lead to the abuse of personal privacy and security. This factor grows in importance when some states are developing more and more sophisticated systems of processing and application of personal data (see “social credit” system developed by China, which as a matter of fact stands behind the recently extremely successful TikTok social media platform).

And we shall not forget the problems of online harassment and cyberbullying, which tend to work both ways: not only ordinary citizens but politicians alike can become targets of online harassment and cyberbullying on social media, which of course can be – and usually is – miniaturized by stating that “actors who cannot handle that, should not participate in social media”, but it always have to be kept in mind, that 1) politicians are human beings as well with the same rights related to the respect of their dignity and privacy, and if that would not be enough, 2) political messages are formulated, designed and drafted usually by non-politicians, and harassment and bullying can have an unwanted effect not only on personal feelings but also on the product of a person’s work, meaning on the political product, and from this aspect, it already has a serious damaging effect on politics as well. If You put it together with the abovementioned other risks (e.g. polarization), the danger and the result must be crystal clear.

All of these risks highlight numerous necessities: the need for responsible use of social media in politics, importance of digital literacy among the public, and – arguably – the need for regulation, which is a task many states and the EU  chose to make a primary concern during the past years, with often questionable results.

Experience of the use of social media during the last European elections

When analysing the European Parliamentary elections in 2019, we can see that social media played a significant role, highlighting some of the relevant facts and some key points. First of all, the creation of the hashtag #EP2019 is showing the relevance of social media there and then.

Additionally, much of the 2019 European election struggle took on social media, with various candidates vying for the most engagement, trying to make positions clear, generate debate and interactions. During this process, some candidates  performed significantly better on social media, than others (examples in various analyses  showed e.g. Guy Verhofstadt from Belgium, Robert Biedroń from Poland, Nico Semsrott from Germany or Carles Puigdemont from Spain), but it is important to stress that the EP elections are about party lists, not individual candidates. Individual performance has only an indirect effect on the actual results – still, it is an important effect as the political strength of individuals do have a positive impact on the strength of a list and we must  not forget that many of these political actors do not only have the European level at their sights, but also have domestic political ambitions.  Klára Dobrev from Hungary can be  mentioned as one of the successful users of social media. She also took the role of one of the leaders of the domestic opposition of Viktor Orbán, so there is a clear intention to profit from this not only on the European level. We could also mention here a new Hungarian political actor, Péter Magyar, who currently uses his social media success for the upcoming 2024 European elections, but he also aims for the 2026 Hungarian general elections. Altogether, in Europe, we always have to calculate with political actors aiming at two targets: the European and their domestic level, often trying to use success on the previous as a fundament for their struggle towards the latter one.

According to many analyses, the last European elections can be dubbed “digital elections”, as they were the most digital European Parliamentary elections. As a vast proportion of European Union citizens use the internet  more and more in their everyday life, digital services – even public services – became (?) more and more of a reality, and online sources and social media play an increased role in the European democratic debate, political competitors have tried to take advantage of the abovementioned aspects – while generating more and more reasons to seriously consider the abovementioned risks, as well. Political advertising has also raised to a new level: the 2019 European elections became the largest supranational campaign of its kind globally. There is no reason to expect less from the upcoming 2024 elections.

Here are some examples of how different political actors  used social media in various ways to try to engage with voters, to spread their message, and to mobilize supporters during the 2019 European elections campaign period.

Using the “classic” function of online platforms, content sharing was continuous. Various parties and candidates  shared a variety of content, e.g. policy proposals, campaign videos and media, news articles and reports, and even personal stories from the candidates themselves and their supporters. These were often  used to try to generate some sort of engagement, based on the realisation that voters’ engagement is half way to acceptance and even a psychological connection – shortly: support. Candidates and parties  used social media to engage with voters directly, often responding to comments, hosting live Q&A sessions and various polls, and encouraging their supporters to share their content, which – understanding the algorithms of various social media platforms, is generating more appearances in front of even more users. All this is about  mobilization, of course, as social media were  often used to mobilize supporters, with parties and candidates encouraging followers to attend rallies, donate money, volunteer their time, and of course, at the end of the day, to vote.

Targeted advertising is probably one of the most effective features of the use of social media (again, not only in politics, important to add). Many competing parties and candidates have used targeted advertisements to reach specific demographic, political or social groups with messages tailored to their need or interest. This makes it possible to use funds as effectively as possible. Additionally, this possibility has opened the door to include funds into political campaigns from something that is already well-known to those who know politics in the US: the so-called PACs. In the United States, a PAC (political action committee) is a tax-exempt legal entity that can be used to pool campaign contributions from members and donate those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. Those traditionally have been used not only to “hide” funds but also by candidates to “distance themselves” from negative messages against their competition, should it backfire at them. In Europe, those have so far proven to be useful in circumventing possible spending limits, but we see examples for the latter as well.

Issue highlighting is also an important aspect of the use of social media. Competing political actors can use and have used social media to highlight key issues in their campaigns and to frame the possible debate in a way that is expected to be favourable to them during the 2019 campaigns. We need to add that this is extremely useful during the European elections, as the European electorate is currently  not as engaged with political issues on the European level as  on the domestic level – meaning that competing actors enjoy wider freedom of topics. In 2019, this was migration, this year it will probably be more about rule of law in Europe.

We also need to add that the effectiveness of the abovementioned strategies has varied widely among different sets of competing parties and member states, depending on differences in resources, digital literacy of the audience, and the political landscape. To sum it up, social media was used extensively in the 2019 European elections, providing the different political actors with unprecedented opportunities to get their messages across and giving European citizens even greater access to the political debates. This may be one of the reasons why the 2019 European elections  produced higher voter turnout than the one in 2014 – something that we have never seen since 1979, the first time the European Parliament was directly elected. Will this be enough for 2024 to repeat that success? We will see…

Regulating social media in politics?

Based on all the abovementioned aspects, the need for regulating  social media has already been recognised by many actors, both in politics and academia, giving rise to interesting debates on the matter. Many fear that new legislation on the field would easily lead to repression of freedom of speech, while others argue that typical “laissez faire” attitude would have the same effect in the end, quoting many of the risks identified above.

Currently there are already established rules for using social media in political campaigns, much of those being derived from rules applicable to its general use. The European Union is also developing its legislative solutions. The established legal rules vary by member states and are often enforced by the respective election bodies and local judiciary.

There are some common general principles that are usually applied as an important element of all these rules. Transparency requires  political advertisements on social media to clearly indicate who paid for them, whose interest they serve. The goal with this is to try to ensure that voters know who is attempting to influence their vote. The creation of spending limits serve to set a maximum amount of funds a competing candidate or party can allocate on social media advertising during a campaign period. This tool may be seen as part of the endeavour to provide equal access to all candidates, trying to level the playing field, at least on the financial aspect. There  may also be various content restrictions, meaning that certain types of content may be prohibited in the given member state – e.g. false or misleading factual information, hate speech, or content that incites violence are typically among the subjects not allowed, and of course, this may and does lead to debates on limits of freedom of speech.

Recently, data protection rules have gained much attention in Europe. They also have a relevance here, as political campaigns are required to respect data privacy laws when using social media for political advertising. This primarily dictates not misusing (including the collection of) personal data to targeted advertisements.

European level rules on social media in politics?

As indicated above, the European Union is also developing its laws on the matter. These rules are designed to protect democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights of European citizens. One of the most important steps is the recently adopted European Media Freedom Act (which we have also covered in an earlier analysis: https://c4ep.eu/european-protection-for-journalism-debate-of-values-or-of-sovereignty/ ), but there are other legislative products as well, already in force.

Under EU law, transparency of ownership is an important requirement, meaning that media service providers are required to publicly disclose such information. Editorial independence is required by the provisions of the European Media Freedom Act, making it a responsibility of the member states to respect and ensure the effective editorial freedom of media service providers, including protection of journalistic sources and guaranteeing the independence of individual editorial decisions, without any political interference.

A unique (currently) European phenomenon (alleged use of the Pegasus spyware originating from Israel)  inspired the provisions of the Act providing strong safeguards against the use of spyware against media, journalists, and their families, and  this provision will probably grow in relevance during the upcoming years. Questions related to public service media are  also currently a European issue: where public service media operates (not every member state has that), its funding should be adequate and stable, in order to ensure editorial independence, mentioned above.

Based on the Act, a “European Board for Media Services” shall be established, which shall have jurisdiction over any media-related questions.

The recent, new European rules shall supplement the already existing member state legislation and orient future legislation. Their effective application is still ahead of us. The 2024 European elections will provide us with valuable experience on the matter.

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