Election 2016: Get ready to be hit by a digital deluge

Euros as well as democracy will drive the social media campaigns on your screen

 

‘If the product is free, you are the product’ goes the saying. The implicit deal we all sign up to when availing of free social media services – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram and so on – is that they sell ads on the back of us, their customers. Media companies, including this one, sell ads on the back of their “traffic”. But both in terms of the debate and the money behind it, social media will be at the centre of the general election battle.

On your Twitter feed, Facebook page, Google search or whatever, you will not be able to escape the deluge and may be surprised at how ingenious the parties can be in targeting you.

Just as your social media provider can notice if you are planning to go to Italy on holiday or are searching for a new fridge and target relevant ads at you, it will sell to the political parties on the same ability to forensically target particular groups.

The use of social media in politics has been a factor for the best part of a decade, spreading from the Obama campaign in the US. Social media was big in the marriage equality referendum last year. However, in terms of general elections, the Conservative victory last year was seen as something of a watershed in the professionalisation and scale of social media use.

The party’s key digital strategist, Craig Elder, said afterwards that it allowed the party to focus on “getting our clear messages on the choice at the election out to undecided voters in marginal constituencies”. With some two million of us logging on to Facebook daily – and growing use of Twitter, Instagram and so on – social media will be central here to the party campaigns and the general election discussion. It will reflect the wider election debate, but will also be a battleground of its own. And unlike the TV and newspaper battles, much of this war will be conducted covertly, on Facebook pages and YouTube feeds.

In the UK election, 38 million active Facebook users contributed 78 million “interactions” related to the election. As Facebook’s politics and government specialist, Elizabeth Linder, has put it, “People don’t trust campaigns . . . they trust their friends.”

Election debate

But this is about dollars as well as democracy. There is money in elections for new media companies, as there is for traditional media companies, as they sell to parties that want to target voters to encourage them to forward their email addresses, to lobby them to become active supporters, canvassers or donors, or simply to vote in a particular way.

Even some time before the general election, the Conservatives were paying £100,000 (€131,000) to Facebook each month to ensure their messages appeared on the feeds of chosen voters. During the campaign, this would have multiplied. Tactics here will mirror those used in the UK. There will be a focus on Facebook, including clever poster-type ads along the lines of the Conservative one showing a tiny Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s top pocket. Another key channel will be pre-roll adverts on YouTube – the small clips that come up before the bit of video you have chosen to watch. The key factor is the ability to target specific groups based on tight geographical areas, along with demographic or search criteria, or whether they are a friend of someone who liked a previous party post, or whatever. A radio station can tell you that its ads reach 30-year-old women in west Dublin. A social media company can prove it.

Active supporters

Much of this online battle will take place out of general view. RTÉ will be measuring the minutes given to each party, but online those with the biggest bucks will get the biggest online advertising bang.

With the campaign all but under way, the parties are pushing their messages. Fine Gael’s Facebook page is peppered with messages saying they can “keep the recovery going”. Fianna Fáil’s page has a mock poster of Enda Kenny with a slogan “I won’t end the scandal of patients on trolleys. Tax cuts for the wealthiest come first.” Sinn Féin’s page is full of 1916 and an attack on the Government’s childcare policy. As the late PJ Mara said: “It’s showtime.” And this time around showtime has also, truly, gone digital.

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