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Political campaigning during a pandemic

6 mins read

It was just a little over a year ago during the cold winter of the 2019 General Election, I was out on the doorsteps in Stirling canvassing and leafleting for Alyn Smith to become the constituencies next MP.

Large groups of us gathering together in campaign rooms, planning what areas we should hit next.  Car sharing with each other to then go on and meet even more people to chap doors, come face to face with everyday voters and talk to them about their concerns and ask them to support Alyn Smith in being elected as Stirling’s next MP.  Such different times.  It feels like a million years ago.

Now if I told you I was doing exactly that this time around you would quite rightly so be telling me we are in the middle of a global pandemic and saying I should be staying at home.  Well another election is around the corner and campaigning from the comfort of my own home is exactly what I am doing.

During Alyn Smith’s campaign I had the privilege of helping run his social media campaign, so I am used to campaigning from behind a computer screen.  This time around I am doing the same thing, however this time it is very different.

Traditional campaigning is focused on getting out into the communities and talking to people on the doorstep.  This time around the attention has turned online, the way we have been living most of our lives during lockdown. 

Every aspect of how we campaign has changed, from the way we budget all the way to how we simply talk to potential voters.  Instead of spending the majority of money spent in campaigns on printed literature, a large proportion of it is now dedicated solely to social media.  We now have double the amount of social media posts and double the number of ads we would usually have.  This new way of campaigning means we have to get creative, so when I ask to share our posts, I tell them to “imagine you are delivering an electronic leaflet onto your friends’ and family’s timeline” rather than physically delivering one.

Social media does have its major advantages when using it as a campaigning tool.  It allows us to reach people we may have never been able to reach before; it also allows us to gather large amounts of information on voters and their thoughts on what is currently going on in the world and locally, which then helps us shape our campaigns.  Most importantly, during this pandemic it allows us to engage with voters safely.

Do I see social media as the primary method of campaigning going forward in the future?  Certainly not.  As much as I love working with social media in order to campaign, it does have its major drawbacks.  Unfortunately, social media can create small “social bubbles” where one-sided opinions are consistently pushed, distorting peoples views of reality.  Take for example the debate that has ensued around the GRA reform.  Mass misinformation has been created in these social media bubbles which has then spread like wildfire.  Social media can unfortunately be a hot bed for conspiracy theories.  Another major drawback is anonymity.  When engaging with voters online, how do we truly know who is behind that screen?  How do we truly know that person’s feelings on a certain issue if they have the ability to hide behind a screen.  We don’t capture how people truly feel about the issues of the day on social media the same way that chatting to people on the doorsteps does.  That in-person interaction makes all the difference.  Let’s not forget the major disinformation campaigns that can be unleashed with the use of social media – the Cambridge Analytica scandal comes to mind.  

So yes, the way in which political campaigners campaign for an election has radically changed this year, there is no doubt about that.  Social media is a brilliant way to campaign and unique way to interact with voters.  However, we do have to be careful of the dangers that it poses.  I have no doubt that soon enough I’ll be able to get back out onto the doorsteps to talk to voters in person rather than behind a screen.  At least I hope so.         

Featured Image Credit: BBC

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