Politicians using social media is nothing new, but with so much unregulated content could it significantly shape election narratives more than before?

Megan Warren-Lister

The announcement of the general election has created an avalanche of content. It’s been christened “the genny lec”, with a constant stream of memes and discourse starting from the moment it was announced by Rishi Sunak in the middle of a downpour outside 10 Downing Street. Many feel disaffected from politics right now, which means it’s easier than ever for a lot of it to feel like a joke. But quick-fire memes and hot takes aside, what does it mean now that politicians themselves are increasingly using Instagram and TikTok as campaigning tools?

Their posts range from the formulaic – the Conservative’s official TikTok account debuted with Rishi Sunak explaining the now-scrapped national service policy to camera  –  to the absurd, such as the clip of former home secretary Suella Braverman (famous for her support of the Rwanda deportation scheme) mimicking the viral Four Seasons Orlando baby. All this might still feel benign, if a little icky, but Dr James Dennis, senior lecturer in political communication at the University of Portsmouth says this short-form content should not be written off as trivial. “For young people, especially disadvantaged 18-25 year-olds who feel unrepresented by traditional media, Instagram and TikTok are a valuable source of information about political issues”.

Politicians using social media is nothing new – it’s thought that 90% of MPs are on Twitter, and many experts pin Barack Obama’s 2008 victory on his canny online campaigns, with Trump taking a leaf out of his playbook around a decade later. A recent survey found that almost 80 percent of 18-24 year-olds consider the internet to be their main news source. Another found that the same group are also twice as likely to rely on TikTok over the BBC . It’s no surprise then, that the upcoming election has been dubbed the first “TikTok election”- with major parties squaring off on the platform for the first time in a bid to woo younger voters - a demographic which has historically been less likely to vote.

When Boris Johnson went head to head with Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, neither party had a TikTok account. Now, Labour has racked up 200k followers on the platform, just piping Reform UK (141,000) and outdoing the Tories almost threefold. So with everything being meme-ified to within an inch of its life, reports of shadow-banning, recent political deepfakes (including one of Labour’s Wes Streeting), and pushy social media bots - what does the expanding online political battleground mean for the 4th July?

Parliament might not yet run briefings for influencers in the style of the White House, but already MPs are doing shorter speeches because they are more likely to go viral on social media. While Meta took centre stage in previous elections by allowing campaigners to use micro-targeting (the practice of putting one target advert in front of one group, and an entirely different one in front of another) the platform’s role in these kinds of events is declining relative to others, says Dr Dennis. In the current election, “politicians are turning to TikTok to try and shape political narratives in spaces where young people are consuming news”. It might differ from Facebook in the lack of paid-for political advertising but the young audience and potential for virality makes it an irresistible tool. 

While the Tories’ TikTok output has been criticised by some as being dull and serious, and Labour has been accused of pumping out cringey millennial memes, their reach has been significant. Sunak’s national service video has over 1.5 million views, while Labour’s memeified response – a clip of the squat Shrek villain Lord Farquard saying “some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make” raked in almost two million views in the 24 hours after it was posted. And the format isn’t one to be scoffed at. “Social media allows young people to find and share political content that is relatable and understandable to them”, Dr Dennis explains. This is especially important for those aged between 18-25 who are facing inequality and likely to feel alienated from traditional media, he adds. 

But it’s not just run-of-the-mill campaign videos that are doing the rounds, other viral content misrepresents political candidates making problematic comments. Young people in key election battlegrounds in particular are being recommended AI-generated videos, and clips full of misinformation. The BBC’sundercover voter’ investigation (which involved the creation of accounts linked to profiles of fictional voters), uncovered a fake clip of Labour candidate Luke Ashurst bragging that he would be elected by “thick” Geordies. On several occasions, they found it took a number of hours for X (formerly known as Twitter) to label the doctored clips as fakes.

There have also been a flurry of suspicious accounts pushing pro-Reform UK content on TikTok in the form of content. Election-related videos from a variety of accounts have been bombarded with comments reading “Vote Reform” or “Reform UK”, many posted by users with auto-generated names and no profile picture, leading experts to suspect they could be bots aiming to amplify party awareness and support.  

One analysis of the @ITVnews and @ITVPolitics accounts found that 5% of all comments on clips relating to the first head-to-head between Starmer and Sunak consisted of either “Vote Reform” or “Reform UK”. Over half of the accounts analysed are thought to be bot accounts, with a large number having followers traced to Nigeria, indicating they may have been purchased from so-called bot farms to boost comments and increase engagement. Reform UK has denied responsibility for any of the accounts.

As well as considering whose voices are heard, it’s also important to consider whose are not as a result of censorship via shadow-banning – a phenomenon which describes sudden low engagement and loss of visibility for accounts posting about a particular topic. Guardian journalist Owen Jones posted a video complaining of being shadow-banned since he began covering the Israel and Gaza conflict last year, and the international human rights NGO Human Rights Watch recently documented what it described as “systemic censorship” of pro-Palestine content on Facebook and Instagram. Meta denies this, though similar complaints arose around the BLM movement during 2020. Three years ago during another escalation in Gaza by Israel, an external audit found the company had violated Palestinian human rights by censoring content. This is not insignificant as the conflict continues in electoral importance.

But what impact will any of this have on the views of internet-savvy voters and the election itself? TikTok specifically is thought to have played a big role in last year’s elections in New Zealand, where the right-wing National party beat Labour. But causation is almost impossible to prove. Even though Russian interference in the Brexit referendum has been widely documented, it’s yet to be proven that it played a significant role in the outcome, and social media movements which seem significant like Grime4Corbyn can end up having little impact. This particular flurry around Jeremy Corbyn, for example, ended with the party securing its worst results in the post-war period.

For Dr Dennis, while much of the online content around the election in the UK might seem unserious, this shouldn’t lead to its dismissal. “Memes are often deemed to be trivial by political discourse, but research has shown that exposure to memes is really powerful”, he explains. “What we know from research is that accessing political content on these apps, regardless of who it's from, can trigger a process of political engagement where people seek out more information and more perspectives.”

As for bots, while they raise questions of internet malpractice, says Dennis, the evidence is scant in terms of their effectiveness in swaying votes. He attributes this at least in part, to the reality of news consumption and opinion formation. “One of the problems when we talk about misinformation and deep fakes on these platforms is that we treat the problem in isolation – as if young people are only getting their political news from these small sample of videos. In reality they’re speaking to friends, their parents, they might be talking about politics at school”.

Social media can also facilitate accountability. The British campaigning group Led by Donkeys uses satire and investigative work to call out politicians for their “thermonuclear hypocrisy” with a recent Instagram video on Rishi Sunak’s privileged upbringing that has racked up 1.2m views. Other influencers like @graceblakely explain and compare party policies.  But even with seemingly transparent content, the waters are easily muddied. During the last general election, Tory campaign guru Sean Topham, re-named the Conservative Twitter account “Fact Check UK” to poke holes in the remarks of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn during a televised leadership debate, misrepresenting itself as an unbiased adjudicator. 

There is a certain irony to social media platforms having been set up to democratise communications, only for the quagmire of content to be described in parliamentary debates as a threat to global democracy – observations that are even more poignant as major companies are scaling back their trust and safety departments. Despite this, efforts are being made to tackle the threat which AI-generated content and misinformation pose to the public’s trust in democracy - if not democracy itself. 

For one thing, says Dennis, TikTok is due to roll-out 27 so-called in-app election centres, and several media outlets have rolled out fact-checking services such as BBC Verify and Channel 4’s Fact Check. “There are also wonderful independent resources like Full Fact”, says Dennis – a charity which identifies falsities in political discourse including those playing out on TikTok. Recent regulations such as the Online Safety Act also make the sharing of political deep fakes illegal.

Most importantly, says Dr Dennis, we should avoid the binary idea that traditional media is good, and information spread on social media as bad. As for the latter’s impact: “I would always push back against claims that this is a social media election or that social media is going to dramatically shape the election result”, Dennis says, “But can it feed into narratives? Can it feed into the way in which topics are discussed? Absolutely”. 

One way this can play out is via memes around particular politicians. “In 2017 we had Theresa May and the jokes about her running through fields of wheat as well as people describing her as robotic”, says Dennis. “These kinds of memes and claims can be significant in terms of shaping and feeding into narratives around the competency of a political candidate”, he adds, explaining how it recalls the front-page photograph of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich which was made into a meme.

But for all of social media’s faults, says Dennis, providing a microphone for youth interests is one thing it does well. When it comes to traditional media and debates, “many of the conversations about young people are being conducted, narrated and framed by older people,” the author explains.

Dennis recalls watching one televised debate in which a father asked a question related to his daughter buying a house. “It’s like the election is about young people but not really for them and that’s where I think social media plays a really positive role.” Over on platforms like TikTok, and even through meme accounts, “young people speak are speaking to young people and framing topics in a way that is relatable and that represents their everyday lived reality.”

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Last Update: June 30, 2024