Social media has reshaped political campaigning. The content parties use for their targeted and organic online communications now has several avenues. From quickfire ‘Gogglebox’-style debate jibes to actual GoggleBox footage, from misleading edited TV interviews to Boriswave content using speeches; political communication has shifted dramatically over the last decade. This has been powered by social media networks, the ease of video editing and the capacity to quickly edit and re-broadcast content created by others. Parties can use bespoke in-house content, from posters to boriswave music videos, appreciating the creative control. However, alongside this content, parties can also reuse other organisations content via news sources, TV interviews or newspaper front pages. This second avenue of content is vital for the parties as it offers the legitimacy of ‘balanced’ mainstream media with the capacity for parties to ‘edit the win’ with recent cases seen in the mischievous use of ITV and BBC content by the Conservatives.
Given that the parties are reusing other organisations content more than ever, it is vital we explore the re-purposing of external content for parties own political ends. However, we must appreciate how this is all part of a new communications system that the parties are taking advantage of — the hybrid media system.
This new communications system is vital to understand, as for example, only around 7.3 million people saw the ITV debate on TV, but millions have seen the debates through cut-up partisan videos on social media. The parties thus love re-using others content as it is cheap and instant, while using this sort of content merges mainstream media credibility with social media virality. This can allow parties to alter the narrative of what occurred and also inform how mainstream media reports on social media.
A new system?
The capacity to reformulate content is a new power parties now have for their online messaging. The repercussions of these new abilities are an unknown because the parties have never had this ability before. Parties have in effect their own TV channels, but no-one is gatekeeping what they can send millions of people. Given how Facebook has stated they will allow fake news to proliferate via political actors, the future of truth during campaigns appears to in question.
Traditional media now has a second life online as social media content, with this social media content then potentially also a traditional media story. This new information highway is one in which parties have never had so much power. There is even a symbiosis that means that traditional media organisations may appreciate the drama this system creates. They are also part of a new media cycle that has social media at its very core.
The neat boundaries once separating newspapers, broadcast, and telecommunications are disappearing. Instead we are seeing what Andrew Chadwick, Professor of Politics at Loughborough University calls the “hybrid media system”. Content can be created for TV, that can then spread to newspapers, this may then spread further via social networks, creating a viral storm that is then reported on by newspapers and the TV.
The blurring lines of division between traditional media and social media has meant that political communications professionals have had to learn to adapt to this new more fluid system. The change brings both opportunity for the parties, but also a gateway for negative influences on our democracy. Campaigners are learning to take advantage of this new hybrid system and engaged in a partisan battle to twist news to political ends. Given this, we are stuck in the middle of a new information war where truth is secondary to winning. It is clear how communications elites have learnt the hybrid media game.
Hybridity at the 2019 General Election — from traditional media to parties social media
The content parties use changes depending on the internal resources available alongside the events that occur. The ITV and BBC debates showed the duality between traditional broadcast campaign content and content for social media. The debates took on a second life online. Old and new media actors are interacting to make news, with this now apparent across targeted advertisements.
Dualscreening is the idea that while you are watching traditional media such as the ITV Corbyn vs. Johnson debate, that you are also on Twitter too.
Through engaging with conversations via Twitter hashtags, we are a part of a hybrid system that parties are now becoming very effective at harnessing. A fantastic example was seen via the Labour Party during the ITV debate.
The Labour Party released a video via Twitter and Facebook featuring Corbyn pulling out the redacted NHS US/UK trade discussions from the debate, only minutes after Corbyn made the live statements. Using a pre-prepared video the Labour Party was taking advantage of the hybrid nature of how people now view traditional media. Labour headquarters clearly understands the system we now find ourselves within, as with this pre-emptive strike the party was able to control the narrative online.
Our Twitter activity was also a source for news organisations, below is the Financial Times sentiment tracker which used Twitter comments to examine sentiment during the debate. Our conversations online while dualscreening are data used as stories by traditional media. The lines between broadcast and micro-cast are becoming particularly admonished, as one-on-one conversations on Twitter are now aggregated into mainstream news stories.
Overall parties appreciate the way we consume traditional media is changing, people don’t generally watch TV on its own anymore. Instead we are consuming multiple avenues of media constantly. The content parties produce is now using this logic far more than was seen in 2017. Parties are getting better at controlling the narrative online and offline, via traditional media events admixed with ‘realtime’ social media content. The parties appreciate that the narrative created online during the debate itself will feed into viewers opinions and helps set the news agenda for after the debate.
Akin to the NHS advert that Labour quickly turned around during the debate, traditional campaign events as seen with the ITV and BBC debates are important sources for powerful organic social media content. This content is not targeted or paid for, and so is designed to activate parties virtual members and to be shared. Given this nature, parties generally try and push simple clear messages that can be spread around social networks organically. Many examples were seen the night of the ITV debate and across the day after.
The content has the legitimacy of a news/television channel associated with it, but is all edited to win. Tactics are also apparent in even the original sources. For example, Boris Johnson appeared tremendously repetitive during the debate, with it apparent that the Prime Ministers action on TV was informed by trying to get content right for reuse later via social and news networks. Getting the performer to reiterate core speech means clear lines for social media and TV news content. A fantastic early example was seen via Ed Miliband trying to make sure the right message went out on the news in 2011. This shows how the hybrid system is shaping politicians offline actions as well as their actions online.
The editing approaches taken across both parties to the debates can turn almost any segment into a win. Millions, especially those in echo chambers, will see a ‘perfected’ version of the debate content online. The truth is obscured and this has important impacts for political polarisation as partisan groups are being given gilded versions of events. This segments audiences into their own filter bubbles obscuring the reality of politicians more real ‘mixed’ performances.
These ‘edited for the win’ videos also appear in targeted advertisements, with content used to reach many different voter groups rather than just party support. The 2017 General Elections first saw the use of debate content as targeted advertisements, the example seen below from the Green Party shows how debate content is not only useful for general audiences via organic content, but also has potential as micro-targeted content.
This trend was again seen via the ITV leaders debate, with the below advertisement sent by the Conservative’s page. 5000 impressions were achieved from a £100 spend, with the content heavily targeted at men, and older women. The use of debate content for targeted advertising is interesting as Boris Johnson repeating his Brexit question 9 times does appear to be purely for advertising via newspapers and in adverts.
The Labour party did not use the ITV debate as advert content, but instead heavily used the BBC debate negatively to attack Boris Johnson. £1500 was spent reaching 150,000 people, with men again a clear target.
The ability for parties to use mainstream media content as targeted advertising content is problematic, as this presentation of their ‘own version’ of events is not just for partisans but is disseminated more generally to people who are unlikely to engage with the debates at all. Men appear to be targeted with this negative debate content, with the parties using targeted advertisements to re-use content designed for the general public for only small audiences. Parties even have the ability to send edited for the win content to low information voters, helping entrench further factually erroneous politics. This capacity to drive apart voters by demographics using content that originally was designed to be balanced, shows how fluid and fractured the modern communications system is.
Hybridity at the 2019 General Election — from the parties social media to traditional media
As well as the parties using traditional media content, during the ITV debate we also saw traditional media use the parties content on social media as news stories. The hybrid media system means that content can run both ways, as the parties efforts to influence millions of social media users, means social media is a story in itself.
This was best seen via the reporting of news broadcasters and papers in response to the @CCHQPress account renaming and branding themselves “factcheckUK” during Tuesday’s live TV debate.
CCHQ was impersonating other legitimate fact checking Twitter accounts to spread ‘partisan’ fact checking. After the debate, the account reverted to its original branding, but Twitter said it would take “decisive corrective action” if a similar stunt was attempted again.
The Conservative Press office’s actions went viral as a traditional news story featuring nearly everywhere from the BBC to the Telegraph, with videos then put up by news organisations on another social network — YouTube.
Hybridity at the 2019 General Election — from the parties social media to traditional media and back to parties social media
There is also the potential for even greater churn within the hybrid system, as the organic post below shows. The Conservatives posted a front page of the Daily Express reporting on the debates. The party is thus reporting via social media the front page of a traditional media source that itself is reporting on television media (Unfortunately the factcheckUK story was too late in the night to be on the front cover, as this would have created a perfect hybrid circle of content).
A shattered sense of truth
The way parties are campaigning is changing, driven by the changing nature of modern communications into a more hybrid system. At the same time the way news reports on these campaigns is also shifting as they themselves have become embroiled in this new landscape. Both are now intertwined and are becoming harder to pick apart, with it clear the parties know this and are making opportune use of this symbiotic/parasitic relationship.
The media environment is in a fluid state where combinations of sources and the ability to edit the truth are making defining the lines of consumption and creation difficult. Truth is becoming less solid as partisans are sent glossed up versions of the ‘truth’ to share, while different demographics are targeted with different versions of debates. Editing videos for the win is splitting the voting population apart as we experience both the boom of social media and the rise of social media infused traditional media.
So what can be done? Well it is difficult, all the parties engage in the re-use of other organisations content. Regulation appears to be a Byzantine solution that would be incredibly hard to implement. While, in a similar manner to the debate surrounding Article 13 (the EU’s new copyright law), the limitation of parties ability to re-use content may stifle debate and their artistic freedom. However, it is clear that parties should be held to higher standards than the public at large, especially in their use of broadcaster content via targeted ads. We must re-establish norms that previously existed, with the parties not playing fast and loose with broadcaster content, especially broadcasters themselves. Campaigners should respect other sources of media, be honest with its content and be true to the values it was originally intended to support. The deliberate politicisation of balanced media sources is not a route we want to allow to flourish, if we want to avoid countries such as the United State’s current media polarisation. Rather than follow in their footsteps, we must enact change. The necessity for fact checking of Facebook advertisements is imperative, with fact checking needed to examine the cut up content used as well as the facts and data used more generally.
Overall, parties have new powers they didn’t used to have, they are themselves gatekeepers and can influence the traditional media in new ways. However, despite this power there is little to no oversight. Given this imbalance, we are only at the beginning of huge change, as it is apparent that in this new hybrid information war, truth has already been a casualty.