‘Social media campaigns didn’t change voters’ minds’

Rather than translate into more votes, both election campaigns probably played more of a role in 'reaffirming' voters’ views, according to web entrepreneurs

Both parties made extensive use of social media throughout the campaign
Both parties made extensive use of social media throughout the campaign

Surveys preceding the June 3 election indicated that Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party (PL) was heading towards victory but the size of the win caught many by surprise, with the general feeling in many circles having been that a win was within the Nationalist Party’s (PN) reach.

Labour won instead, with a landslide.

While both parties made extensive use of social media throughout the campaign both the PL and PN weren’t as effective as they hoped at influencing new voters, according to Gege Gatt, director at ICON, a leading software development and digital marketing company. 

ICON, together with data mining platform Minely, carried out what Gatt described as a big-data exercise that sampled over two million “actions” on Facebook in an analysis of the general election on social media. 

The exercise – which can be accessed at www.icon.com.mt/malta-elections-2017/ – allowed its developers to collect various metrics that relate to how Facebook users interacted with content coming from both campaigns.

A prediction from the exercise based on the number of active users interacting with political and news portal pages, estimated the Labour Party winning 53.8% of the vote, with 42.56% going to PN – considerably closer to the actual result than some surveys. 

Gatt said that neither of the two parties had offered “anything novel” in terms of their digital campaigning and lacked content tailored to specific sub-groups, for example. 

Rather than translate into more votes, he said both campaigns probably played more of a role in “reaffirming” voters’ views and increasing the campaign’s tempo through live broadcasts. In many cases, the parties were preaching to the converted.  

He explained that Malta’s high use of Facebook together with the “passionate participation in a polarised political environment” contributes to an “echo chamber effect” and reduces the likelihood of Facebook users searching for “objective truth” beyond their own timelines and circles of friends.  

The term ‘echo chamber effect’ is commonly used to describe the occurrence of Facebook users following pages and people whose views they share while avoiding those with different opinions. This, it is claimed, leaves the user feeling more strongly about their opinion and less likely to be convinced otherwise.

“Voters get a skewed impression of what other citizens think, and both parties seem to have been more able to pander to their existing cohorts than to influence new ones,” said Gatt.

Asked which age group was most likely to be influenced by social media content, Gatt said that one could not consider age alone, and that factors like cultural circumstances and educational upbringing are likely to be more determining factors. 

“Social media prizes emotionalism over reason,” he said. “The more frenzied the message, the quicker it circulates, and the longer it holds the ever-moving public eye.”

In addition to communicating a message to voters, social media can also be used to collect data to inform campaign strategy and positioning. 

“More sophisticated campaigns generate psychometric variables to profile users and target them with the right message at the right time,” he said. “In this way, social media becomes both a listening tool and a broadcast medium at once.”

Ultimately Gatt argued that political campaigns “are all about targeting” and that while normal demographic profiling is effective, analysing a country’s digital footprint would inform parties on what messages work with different individuals. 

“As campaign teams become better at combining data points from online users they’ll be able to predict with some accuracy what message would be most effective for each person,” he said. 

“Rather than having one national campaign, parties will likely need to have multiple sub-campaigns built on expertise and intelligence derived from social data.”

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