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Feed The Vote: Influencers and the General Election

Are Influencers influencing the election?

Source: Twitter

If you’ve read any of our other content, you’ll know that we are very often discussing the power influencers have on our ever digitalising society. It goes without saying that in the wider world – even outside of the marketing community – the last few years have seen much talk about whether or not the power social influencers have is positive or negative. Whilst we sit firmly on the positive bench, we do recognise that this industry is young and there are rivets and effects in need of ironing out in terms of ethics, just as in any other marketing circle. Bloggers, vloggers and all kinds of content creators are the ‘new media’ celebrities who are in high demand for brands who want a sprinkling of their digital stardust to rub off on their products and services, and really get to the heart of their customer communities. But, as we head towards the impending General Election here in the UK on the 12th of December (2019), beyond tales of their lavish lifestyles and outrageously successful collaborations with brands, have these content creators been wielding their influence when it comes to the General Election? And, is that a positive or negative power for influencers to afford?

According to NME, ‘voter registration saw a huge 236% increase after [Grime artist] Stormzy urged people to register to vote… and pledged his support for Jeremy Corbyn.’ In a lengthy Instagram post, Stormzy urged people to register to vote before outlining his support for Corbyn, going on to describe the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as a “sinister man” who can’t be trusted. Stormzy certainly isn’t the only influencer or celebrity to have jumped on the labour bandwagon, with artists such as Dua Lipa quickly following suit. Stormzy and Dua Lipa are arguably traditional celebrities (both forging their fame through music), influencer KSI reportedly had a similar effect on voter registration after he too posted online about the upcoming election. Whilst this year’s election has seen numerous celebrities and influencers giving their two cents online about the importance of registering to vote – let alone who to actually vote for – a surprisingly small number of journalists and media outlets have been commenting on this newly emerging element to the campaign races. Perhaps if editorials were writing about this relatively new political phenomena, they would be asking the question: should people with influential power and an online following – like Dua Lipa, Stormzy and KSI – speak out about politics, encouraging their followers to vote Labour or otherwise, or does it damage democracy and coax people into voting blindly without knowing who or what they’re voting for?

Even if political agendas are miles away from their typical verticals of content, there does seem to be an element of expectation and pressure for young artists and influencers to share their political support online. Indeed, not only to encourage their followers to get into the booth and vote, but also to educate them on who they ought to be voting for. Charli XCX, another female UK pop singer, posted a long series of videos to Instagram Stories about registering to vote, but refused to say who it was she would be voting for as it was apparently ‘too complex’ for her to weigh in on, the backlash of which was monumental. Given the historically low election turnout among young people in the UK – and globally – surely it’s a positive thing that young influencers and artists are encouraging their followers to exercise their vote? Writing for the I, on the UK’s 2017 General Election between the likes of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, journalist Amelia Tait noted that ‘the group least likely to vote is young women aged 18-24 – which just so happens to be one of the biggest target audiences for prominent individuals such as Zoella.’ In fact, Apathy is Boring (a Canadian, non-partisan, youth-led charitable organization that supports and educates youth to be active and contributing citizens in Canada’s democracy) reports ‘one of the things that we know is that [influencers] simply making an ask of somebody in a meaningful way, increases their likelihood to get out and vote by 10%.’ It’s worth noting, on a slightly separate tangent, that Apathy is Boring collaborated with Instagram themselves on a Canadian election campaign brunch with influencers called ‘#FeedTheVote’, which begs the question: should social media platforms remain partisan – as other forms of media are supposed to – or can they take stance on political agenda? It’s undeniable that the status of democracy does seems to become a little muddled when social media is involved.

What does the public think about influencers disrupting the election?

BBC Sounds podcast ‘The Next Episode’ recently recorded a broadcast around the influence content creators are having on the election, interviewing young people from around the country on whether or not it’s a good thing influencers and getting involved. Interestingly, the general reaction towards influencers being politically engaged online was wholly negative. One interviewee said:

“I want more young people to vote, but once an influencer… once I start sniffing out ‘Oh, you should vote for labour, you should vote for conservative, ‘cause of this and that’… they should disclose it as an ad, I think it’s fake [if they don’t], I think it’s inappropriate because I think that people should seek out their own political ideas in their own way – they should do their own research, and I don’t want to be influenced by any influencer to vote for a specific political party… I think it’s wrong.”

Gina Martin, an activist influencer who rose to fame by changing the UK law around up-skirting to make it illegal, spoke on the podcast and agreed with the interviewee’s sentiments, commenting that she hasn’t been approached by political parties to post, but she would never agree to a brand deal with a political party anyway because it’s damaging to democracy and coercive. A BBC spokesperson on the podcast commented that whilst we might be seeing more from celebrities in terms of their political agenda, it’s actually influencers who have more power; “there’s a big difference between influencers and celebrities, people feel much closer to influencers, like they know them personally, so there’s more trust there.” One influencer manager, who mainly caters for ‘studytubers’ (influencers with a ‘how to study well’ vertical), commented that influencers with massively engaged student audiences have been the most politically vocal influencers recently.

However, even influencers whose audiences you might assume were politically engendered, are not met with positivity when posting politically inclined content. The podcast interviewees, who were young members of the general public, said that it was only more appropriate for influencers to encourage voting if they already talk about politics, because it makes the content more authentic; so if people go to a beauty blogger for make-up tips and tricks, they don’t want to also be told to vote at the end of the video. Perhaps there is something here about the way society treats influencers, celebrities – and especially women – as two dimensional, instead the three dimensional humans with rightful political agendas.

How are political parties using social media?

The Labour party have in the past worked with celebrities, and that is clearly happening again in this election. When the main parties were all approached by the BBC for comment on whether or not they were engaging with paid influencer marketing for their election campaigns, the Labour party conceded that they were urging celebrity supporters to post ‘Register To Vote’ links, provided them with graphics and so on, but were not paying them to do so. In fact, none of the main parties said anything about paying influencers to be a part of their election campaign. Whilst we might be somewhat in the dark about if – and indeed how – political parties are working with influencers, we do have more information about how parties are using social media themselves. Interestingly, none of the main parties are really using Instagram which has a relatively young user base (the Labour party posted an ad to Instagram about fox hunting that was seen by a tiny number of people), instead opting to publish content on Facebook, where a much older audience is present. Whilst they might not be particularly smart about how they spend their money when it comes to social media, parties are certainly spending. The Conservatives are spending around £10,000 to get an ad seen by you on Facebook, whilst the Liberal Democrats are spending around £30,000 a week on social media. Whether their content gets views or not, parties are using the statistics that social media provides, to work out how to run their overall campaign. What political parties are doing, is cheaply over-posting very similar (but not identical) content, analysing the data to see exactly what gets the highest engagement, and then using that content, imagery and messaging all over their campaign – be it online or offline.

In terms of platform coverage, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party are the only main party on TikTok, with 1795 followers and an average of 20 to 60 views, but they only use it post pre-existing videos from other platforms; so no silly, magic hoodie tricks sadly. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have Snapchat accounts, but the interviewees of the BBC Sounds podcast thought that politicians being on social media is almost an invasion of privacy and a waste of political money, because in many ways socials are a happy place for users to relax. They argued that since we don’t really know who they are or how we can trust politicians, if they want to be on social media, they should use their account to just be their authentic selves, showing who they really are and what they really love, instead of shouting about what their party is doing.

What lessons can be learnt about authenticity?

Most influencers – especially those with fewer followers – have highly engaged social media audiences and are able to access people not reached through traditional channels. Whilst we all might be hoping this push to get young people to vote works, there are also some very important lessons for those of us in marketing to digest. Whilst young industry years, it stands to reason that we have now reached a stage in which there is a high level of expectation surrounding social influencers. The power they have comes with a sense of responsibility – and there is a desire to see them use this responsibility in a positive way. Hence, this should show the value to be had in positioning your brand behind a worthy cause, especially one that chimes with your audience, but also the importance of taking great care in doing so, aligning with the right people and only doing what is authentic to you. People like to ally themselves with brands (including political parties) which ‘do something good’ and are more likely to have a deeper affinity with those that do so. Backing the right campaign can do your reputation the power of good – for both parties involved – showing that you’re not just jumping on a bandwagon.