Politicians' love/hate relationship with social media

Politicians cannot stop criticising social-media companies for failing to take action against 'fake news' or tackle abuse, and they play the fall guy to make politicians look strong.

Politicians need to take a look at themselves before criticising social media platforms, argues Stuart Thomson
Politicians need to take a look at themselves before criticising social media platforms, argues Stuart Thomson

But politicians love using all the tools of social media as well – it opens up communications possibilities they could have previously only dreamed about.

Politicians value social media for a number of reasons, not least its ability to help them engage directly with constituents.

But rather than just talking about local issues and facilitating a dialogue, the parties can't help but look at all the ways that social media can help inform people about their positions and to attack opponents.

Sadly, as this general election progresses, some of the techniques used seem less than ethical – or are, at least, questionable.

Even before the election started, the Government chose to run targeted ads for the funding it announced for rundown high streets across the country.

These appeared on Facebook and featured the name and image of the user's local town concerned along with a figure of £25m.

These ads were criticised both because the actual number is likely to be smaller and because the towns concerned were target seats for the Conservatives in what was then the soon-to-be-called election.

Facebook pulled the ads – not because they were political, but rather, for a technically incorrect labelling.

Facebook also removed ads for a tax campaign group, run by a former aide to Boris Johnson, for breaking its rules on political advertising.

The message in the ad said 'sponsored' but did not reveal who had paid for it. Under Facebook’s rules, political advertisers have to register with the platform, and every ad has to show who has paid for it.

Then onto the election itself; we have already seen an altered video issued by the Conservatives, showing a long pause by Labour's Keir Starmer apparently unable to answer a question on Brexit [during a Good Morning Britain interview].

This was shared widely, not least by Government ministers themselves.

But it's not all about social media and sharing content. The parties also take out ads on Google – so, for instance, when you searched for 'Labour' or 'join Labour Party' then the top result was 'CostofCorbyn.com', highlighting the much-criticised figure created by the Conservatives of Labour's spending plans.

Labour is doing the same thing as well (searching for 'join Lib Dem party' for a while got you a 'Vote Lib Dem get Boris' Labour Party site).

Google has now, though, announced plans to stop political advertisers from narrowly targeting users.

So while Facebook and Twitter may be in the firing line for 'fake news' and abuse, the issue is much more complex.

During the first leadership debate, the Conservative Party rebranded one of its Twitter accounts to "factcheckUK".

Speaking on BBC Breakfast the following day, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, responded to criticism by saying: "No one gives a toss about social media cut and thrust."

That is probably the largest piece of fake news of the election so far. While Twitter is not the natural home of large parts of the electorate, the actions of the party ensured widespread 'mainstream' coverage, which the electorate will see.

When called out for their actions, politicians refuse to apologise or back down – they double down and the nature of social media means that the 'dodgy' materials circulate forever more.

It is little wonder that no one believes what the politicians are saying. They are, in effect, undermining themselves and politics, while seeking to hit their opponents.

It is not just social-media companies that need to look at themselves.

Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs at BDB Pitmans LLP

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