From “Yes We Can” to “Should We Really?”

It’s exactly a decade since I can first remember paying any particular attention to political campaigning on social media and that’s because in 2008 Barack Obama was capturing hearts and minds not just in the US but also globally on newly emerging platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And the thing that stood out about that method of campaigning, besides its obvious success, was that Obama was doing things the progressive way, reaching out directly to younger voters eager to absorb that singular message that, “Yes We Can” improve society. Fast forward to 2018 and it’s striking how that sense of founding optimism around digital campaigning has left a troubling legacy for some politicians.

They know that with the growing capacity to target voters individually with messages comes a growing uneasiness among those same voters that their social media profiles are being used in ways they didn’t know they’d signed up for. Yet there is also a natural reluctance to risk disrupting the use of digital campaign tools that have often yielded transformational results. Just ask the Scotland Office, facing accusations this week of “ignoring” Yes voters in online advertising on trade.

Suddenly assumptions about digital campaigning are being questioned and it’s leading to awkward reassessments of what’s been happening for years.

This week’s appearance at Westminster by former Cambridge Analytica (CA) director Brittany Kaiser threw up awkward questions for the SNP that the party subsequently had to field at FMQs on Thursday. Brendan O’Hara MP’s obvious surprise when told out of the blue that the SNP had held meetings with CA in the past, and that there was a paper trail to prove it, was another indicator that the main parties who have communicated well via social media well in recent years (and the SNP has done it very well indeed) really aren’t all that keen to discuss how it works.

The fact that this reluctance to communicate how and why individuals are targeted online might have been why O’Hara wasn’t pre-briefed by the party on its prior contact with the company – before the 2016 election as it turned out – suggested a worrying disconnect between the politicians and those paid to promote their messages.

Today’s announcement by advertising trade body the IPA of a call for a moratorium on micro-targeted political adverts shows that at last the highly regulated worlds of political campaigning and mainstream advertising might be preparing to catch up with the “Wild West” landscape of social media.

At last, a decade on from Obama’s pioneering first term social media strategy, we’re moving on from “Yes We Can” to “Should We Really?” The truth is dawning on elected politicians on all sides at Holyrood and Westminster that they’ll have to keep ever closer tabs on how their messages are being delivered and whether they meet both current and potential standards of practice on data processing.

The question is, are they ready and willing to robustly challenge the very tools that have brought so much success?

Peter Smyth

Head of Public Affairs