Memocracy: the crowd speaks back

Political communications was once a one-way process; politicians spoke from stages and voters listened. The art of the trade was to ensure voters received the politician’s message, stories trickled down to the people through journals, periodicals and newspapers. Twentieth-century technological progress consolidated the trend; televisions and radios connected politicians with ever-larger numbers of voters, yet audiences never answered back.

Social Media has turned political communications on its head; citizens are no longer merely the passive recipients of messages and they don’t have to tolerate the lacklustre candidates put in front of them by political parties. Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg emerged as political figures thanks to the spontaneous online activity of their supporters rather than any planned communications strategy. Social Media has become a tool for voters to choose who they want to see on stage.

A successful social media political communications strategy now hinges on its ability to persuade its members to engage with the political message, rather than passively receive it. The perfect digital campaign posts content that people will interact with and push on to a wider audience.

In itself this might not sound like anything new; political parties have always depended on their grass-roots organisation for communications, but whereas before activists just pushed pamphlets emblazoned with party-approved messages through letter-boxes, today’s volunteers are independently creating and disseminating political content on a mass-scale and in real-time. Members makes messages in digital politics.

Two-way political communications promises a more in-touch, inclusive, and responsive politics. There is an opportunity to give everybody a place in the rooms previously reserved for political elites. Over-centralised party structures used to scupper political activism, but now members can respond to parochial issues by creating relevant content themselves, rather than waiting for approval or guidance from a distant HQ.

If communications teams were to dedicate as much time to listening and reading their members’ social media posts as they do to creating output, their campaigns would blossom. Post engagement is the new barometer for success. It is no longer enough just to be seen, starting conversations is the goal.

Success stories

Digital activism powered the Labour Party’s better-than-expected performance at the 2017 General Election. A supporters-led communications campaign posted memes and graphics attacking Theresa May’s hapless campaign and extolling Jeremy Corbyn’s. The party’s own communications strategy was outdone by its members’ rapid-response meme-making: they made funny, clever content that people wanted to share. 
With over 500,000 members, Labour’s membership base was crucial to its success. It had the largest pool of resources to draw from, particularly as many members are tech-savvy youngsters. In comparison, the average age of the Conservative Party’s members is 71, and there a fewer than 100,000 of them. 71 year-olds don’t make funny memes.

The Labour Party is not the only major European political party whose members have driven a digitally-inspired political renaissance. The German FDP was obliterated in the 2013 German General Election, missing the 5% threshold for election to the Bundestag for the first time in the post-war era. The party had to dismantle its paid administrative support network: organisers, parliamentary and support staff were laid off. The party’s ordinary members stepped up to replace them and they did so through smart online community management. Boosted by Christian Lindner’s charismatic leadership, the party’s membership-led campaigning more than doubled its vote-share, winning 10.7% and 80 seats in the Bundestag.

One of Lindner’s success stories was his use of live-streaming services, such as Facebook live. He regularly posted spontaneous videos of himself in the back of a car responding to topical political issues. Sometimes he answered people’s questions live, and if he didn’t then his team would normally respond to them in the comments sections.

Sebastian Kurz, the new Austrian Chancellor, is another master of ‘live’ posting. During the Austrian election campaign he was prepared to spontaneously upload material whenever the right moment arose. His live posts received on average three-times more comments and reactions than ordinary ones. These posts perform better than staged ones because they are authentic.

For those brave enough to embrace them, memes and live-posts can supercharge a digital political communications campaign.

*David Chadwick works in Digital Political Communications, in Brussels.