The UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the United States’ election of Donald Trump as president caused shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016, but was there more to those campaigns than it seemed?

ICO has made an announcement about “conducting a wide assessment of the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations,” said an ICO spokeswoman. “We intend to publicise our findings later this year.”

This has raised a debate about how much can the public actually be influenced by social media and political campaigns that use the platforms.

Trump stated as far back as October 2012 that: "My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth." His many "enemies" would doubtless respond that he thinks his tweets are so powerful that he sees no need to tell the truth. Whichever point of view may be valid, there is no doubt that the 2016 US presidential election results owed something to the evolving power of social media to influence public opinion.

Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Canadian firm AggregateIQ, confirmed that their Facebook campaign leading up to the EU Referendum was highly successful and so would also have influenced the way many people voted on 23rd June.

The fact that this was the case in 2016 was reinforced by an earlier Pew Research Centre study, back in 2014 that claimed 61% of millennials were sourcing their political news from Facebook. (See here and here).

Social media in UK elections

As far as elections in the UK are concerned, the 2010 general election was billed as "the people's election" by the Independent, who believed that the result would demonstrate how social media platforms could hand power back to the people in a modern democracy.

It is doubtful that this actually happened then, but by 2013 bold claims were being advanced concerning the upcoming elections of 2015. In November 2013, Labour election strategist, Douglas Alexander, told The Guardian that social media would be a 'priceless' tool in the election campaign. Shortly afterwards, the BBC wondered if 2015 would be the ‘first really digital general election in the UK.’ The Guardian reported that, according to Twitter's own research data, "One in three 18 to 34 year-old users had changed their vote from one party to another, 47% had reconsidered their views on a specific issue based on what they’d seen on the site, and 20% said they were still undecided about how they planned to vote."

Social media hype

Not everyone agreed: many commentators lamented the paucity of serious, informed political comment on Twitter. In February 2015, Saatchi and Saatchi's chief strategy officer insisted that the political impact of social media was "massively overrated" and YouGov's founder, Stephan Shakespeare, sneered that social media strategies were inadequate and that ‘parties are using social media to deliver leaflets.’

Towards 2020

Indeed, in Dr Allen Charles' study, "The Politics of Social Media," he asks in conclusion: "Had social media fostered interactive nation-building consensus or merely trivialized, personalized, fragmented and negativized the deliberations of public sphere?" 

Furthermore, a 2015 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examined whether social media really had so much of an impact. The report's author, Colin Byrne, pointed out that the evidence suggested that traditional media, particularly broadcast, was more influential during those elections. However, he posited that the way all media were developing digital relationships to secure major audience share could ensure greater social media influence in 2020: “If social media users continue to grow as an audience, and digital natives establish key roles among news outlets, the general election in 2020 will look very different. It could be much more of a social media election.”

It would seem that all those involved in modern elections are going to need to take the potential future impact of social media on election outcomes very seriously.

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