Are Conservatives finally getting it right on social media?

Gabriel Gavin writes about the social media fightback from the Conservative Party… and why it is so important for getting out the Conservative message to voters.

At the last General Election, the most high profile battleground wasn’t Stoke, Ipswich or even Canterbury – it was online. The Labour Party’s large and pious base of supporters and sympathetic new media sites meant that it was simply better able to get its message out to voters. The Conservative Party, by contrast, found it difficult to counter online criticism, which spread rapidly and through to groups of people who might not be reached by a rebuttal in a press release or by the six o’clock news.

In some of the Party’s key marginals, targeted digital advertising sought to segment voters and address the issues that they care most about. For example, Facebook users in Derby North would have seen posts that highlighted Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term opposition to nuclear power, a key local employer. That didn’t stop Labour’s Chris Williamson winning the seat from Amanda Solloway. Similarly, the Party’s negative tone and references to Corbyn’s support of extremist groups fell short with younger people enthused by Labour’s message.

No doubt recognising that, the Prime Minister has appointed Brandon Lewis as Chairman of the Conservative Party and James Cleverly as his Deputy. Within a matter of days, it is clear that CCHQ’s digital approach has been re-energised. The Party’s profile on social media is already being elevated, with an increase in slick, targeted adverts, shareable graphics and videos of ministerial statements outlining the Government’s key positions. New accounts have been set up making the Conservative case on Defence, Leaving the European Union, the environment and on a range of other briefs.

If proof were needed upsurge in online presence has an impact on the real world, the new Conservative social media machine claimed its first scalp just days after the reshuffle. After calling for powers for local authorities to be able to double council tax, that same Chris Williamson found his face plastered over graphics that were retweeted thousands of times across numerous accounts. His subsequent departure from the shadow frontbench, billed as though by mutual agreement, was one of the first signs that CCHQ can make social media work.

But even if the Party can mobilise its supporters online, the question of whether it can actually combat Labour’s operation and influence the national debate amongst undecided voters. For it to do so, it has to genuinely put forward positive, meaningful messages on the issues people who aren’t instinctively political care most about. A good example of where this works was with Michael Gove’s excellent reforms around pesticides, plastics, CCTV in slaughterhouses, animal welfare and ocean rescue. Appealing to an audience that otherwise may not be natural Conservatives, social media formed a key part of the strategy that has led to the Party being hailed as champions of conservationism.

Similarly, rebuttals to widely shared and profoundly false claims last
year that Conservative MPs had voted to declare that animals were not sentient came from all quarters and went some way to setting the record straight. A co-ordinated and colossal response from MPs across all social media channels in this way was an early example of how effectively the Party can use social media when it wants to.

Many younger people scrolling Facebook over the past week will have come across a colourful and immersive advert, attacking Labour’s ‘pick n mix’ policy making. Made with Facebook’s Canvas advertising package, it steps beyond simply sharing graphics and is far more likely to have a lasting impact on its audience in the longer-term.

The Conservative Party has a mountain to climb to win over younger people. As a brand, it may never be cool amongst that generation, but in actuality it doesn’t need to be. Dispelling myths and falsehoods, highlighting its record in Government and making a positive case on the pressing issues facing younger will be more than enough to win their begrudging respect. Digital campaigning and social media clearly has a role to play in that, and CCHQ under Lewis and Cleverly recognises that and is doing something about it. Only half a year on from the criticism and mockery rightly faced by the toxic Activate group, Conservatives might finally be getting it right online.

Gabriel Gavin is a charity worker, school governor and Conservative council candidate with a background in policy and campaigning

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