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Social media and the 2015 general election

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

The 2015 general election was set to be the first driven by social media. But how much did it impact the results? And what lessons were learnt as media outlets tested new ways of engaging with their readers ahead of polling day?In a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Getting Engaged? The Relationship between Traditional, New Media, and the Electorate during the 2015 UK General Election, Colin Byrne, former political spin doctor and public relations thought leader investigates.
“The 2015 UK general election had the potential to be the first real social media general election,” says Byrne.
“With Facebook and Twitter established as popular platforms for engagement and new players like Snapchat, Vine and Instagram having launched since the last general election in 2010, the possibility for new methods of engagement for media organisations were high.”
Both Labour and the Conservatives recognised the opportunities for voter engagement provided by social media; Labour recruited Blue State Digital, strategy leaders for two Obama campaigns. And the Conservatives spent a reported £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising.
Facebook itself was focused on a major voter registration drive, similar to its pre-election approach in the US. Traditional media had big plans for innovative digital engagement, and digital-native media outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice News were establishing a growing presence as political players, expanding their coverage and recruiting specialist political reporters.
In the report, Byrne examines several key case studies, looking at how media outlets engaged their audiences and experimented with new formats.  
He looks at Sky News’ youth campaign, Stand Up Be Counted, The BBC’s Generation 2015, Free Speech and #BBCAskThis initiatives and The Guardian’s interactive digital approach, which focused on making big data engaging, informative and useful to voters. Examining the relationship between new media and its traditional counterparts, Byrne looks too at the BuzzFeed Brews – and their ‘coup’ in attracting an interview with Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The Sun’s Sun Nation platform and comedian and activist Russell Brand’s interview with then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband are also examined, along with TV leader debates.
Did the high levels of social and new digital media have an impact? Byrne says that the evidence points to traditional media, particularly broadcast media, remaining more influential than new digital platforms this time around. But the ever-developing digital relationships as media outlets seek to grab audience share could mark a trend for more profound influence at the next general election in five years’ time.
“If social media users continue to grow as an audience, and digital natives establish key roles among news outlets, the general election in 2020 will look very different,” says Byrne. “It could be much more of a social media election.”
 
Further information:
Getting Engaged? The Relationship between Traditional, New Media, and the Electorate during the 2015 UK General Election, by Colin Byrne, is a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. You can download it in full here.
Colin Byrne is CEO UK&EMEA for Weber Shandwick, the leading global public relations firm. He was previously Head of Press for the Labour Party and deputy to the then campaigns director Peter Mandelson. In 2015 he was named one of the top 10 influentials in PR and given a Lifetime Achievement Award in communications.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is based in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is its core funder. The Institute was launched in November 2006 and developed from the Reuters Fellowship Programme, established at Oxford 32 years ago. An international research centre in the comparative study of journalism, the Institute aims to be global in its perspective and provides a leading forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to engage with journalists from around the world.
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