Increasingly, elections take place in deeply divided societies. Instead of starting at the fringes and then moving to the middle, some campaigns aspire to destroy rather than occupy the center.
In many places across Europe and the rest of the world, populists, sovereign adversaries, and violent extremist groups use social media to facilitate division hoping to erode democratic norms and institutions that traditionally ensured a fair playing field for political competition.
The image of social media has taken a beating thanks to this change in political culture. For many, its reputation plunged from Arab Spring heights to US election meddling lows in only a few short years. There are security and intelligence services, legislatures, and many NGOs who now ask just how much of a threat this environment is to the integrity of elections across the globe.
For campaigners across Europe, it’s a challenge we will need to continue to address in the years ahead.
Despite the reputational hit, the strength of social media platforms remains their numbers: people continue to post and engage. The question for campaigns is whether we are listening effectively. And if so, are we responding to what we’re learning? This is where social listening comes in.
The online space is thematically rich: conversation topics range from the Ukraine–Russia conflict to nuclear energy to migration. Most importantly, the online conversation is more honest, oftentimes brutally. Behind the cloak of anonymity people share deeply held feelings and opinions they would not express otherwise, like at a town hall meeting or in a focus group. People create a rich public space online through their commenting because they want to be heard.
Social media content can be a key source of insight into what people think and why—if approached with an open mind, proper methodology, and a degree of respect. Viewed that way, public cyberspace is not just some disinformation-infested playground for people trapped in their various filter bubbles, but a treasure trove of insight and actionable knowledge.
If your campaign is not investing in this area, chances are you aren’t doing enough to understand your electorate. Here are a few things to consider before embarking on a social media listening program:
Understand clearly what you’re measuring
When selecting a vendor or solution for this purpose, be sure to distinguish between traffic analysis and content analysis. A dashboard with nifty graphics on reach, intensity, platform use, etc. may tell you a lot about how something is happening online. But it’s qualitative content analysis—preferably the type that relies on human analysis—that can tell you what is happening and why.
Make your messaging user-friendly
Social media listening is best deployed for testing the relevance and framing of your messages. If the natural online conversation about your issue is small, you are talking about something people have little interest in. In terms of framing, ask your analysts to identify the themes, events, personalities, and organizations people talk about in connection to your value or policy proposition. Integrate those into your messaging to make it user-friendly.
Don’t let the scale of the task knock you off track
Don’t be intimidated by the volume of social media data—qualitative saturation works here too. Analyzing a thousand quotes is likely to give you as much qualitative insight as doing the same with ten thousand. There are a handful of very capable commercial grade social media scraping tools available on a subscription basis. Talkwalker, Brandwatch (now merging with Crimson Hexagon) are reliable brands. And make sure that whatever you do on social media you comply with the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (GDPR).
Social media listening provides qualitative value. It identifies voters’ narratives. These narratives order complex information and emotions into a coherent story with an explanatory power for the ordinary person. Social media listening can spot emotions that motivate people to join the public debate—the same emotions that may drive them to vote.
Careful qualitative analysis uncovers everyday life themes through which people talk about politics and policy issues. Armed with that knowledge, a campaign can wrap “immigration policy” into a discussion on the availability (or lack thereof) of halal food in school cafeterias. It can frame “nuclear energy production” as a public health issue, addressing people’s apparent fear of radiation contamination via drinking water.
Using these bridges of relevance does not mean that candidates need to echo what citizens are saying or how they are saying it. What it means is to bring the candidate’s agenda where people’s attention already is and drive the conversation from there.
Campaigns that endeavor to bridge political divisions stand to gain much from proper social media listening. It can offer a more comprehensive understanding of what is relevant to non-supporting voters and a window into how those voters express their feelings on certain issues. Acknowledgment and recognition of the other builds trust and allows for the establishment (or reestablishment) of a space where dialogue, and eventually, persuasion, can happen.
It is ironic that trust in democracy is waning because voters feel that their representatives don’t care about them at the same time as social media analysis gives us an unprecedented ability to understand the hearts and minds of the public, effectively and efficiently.
Much of the public discourse has moved online. People are posting and want to be heard. Campaigns that listen will benefit from it.
Kristof Varga is the Director of Bakamo Public, a social media research company serving government agencies, political parties, nonprofit organizations globally. He managed national election campaigns and was elected to the capital city council in his native Hungary.