With campaign spending limited, Britain’s political parties have become reliant on social media as a way to mobilize supporters for this week’s elections.
LONDON — There is no political advertising on television or radio in Britain. Fundraising and spending are strictly limited. Tight elections can turn on a relative handful of votes in a small number of competitive parliamentary constituencies.
So as Britain’s political parties head into a tight, unpredictable election Thursday, they are even more reliant than their U.S. counterparts on social media as a way to mobilize supporters for a last push and disseminate their messages directly to voters.
Social media makes up for “that small difference of being that tiny bit marginally better than the other party,” said Anthony Wells, director of political and social-opinion polling at YouGov, a prominent polling company in London. Digital technology also helps parties winnow undecided voters from the rest of the electorate, he said.
The governing Conservatives, the opposition Labour Party and at least four smaller parties that could hold the balance of power are targeting disaffected young people who might not otherwise vote and undecided voters in critical districts.
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They are drawing to some degree on the lessons of recent campaigns in the United States and in particular the digital expertise of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The Conservatives are being advised by Jim Messina, who as Obama’s 2012 campaign manager set a new standard for the use of data and digital technology, and Labour by David Axelrod, Obama’s communications guru.
Prime Minister David Cameron got off to a rocky start on social media. He told a radio interviewer in 2009, a year before he became the nation’s leader, that he was not on Twitter because its “instantness” did not sit well with a politician’s need to think about what he says — and then used a profanity to punctuate a point about “too many twits.” But he, or his campaign, has since shifted course, with more than 1,700 posts made from @David_Cameron, which has more than 900,000 followers.
Social media, almost by definition, mocks any efforts by candidates to control their message or their image. On Friday, when Cameron inadvertently referred to the election as “career defining” — he quickly corrected himself to say “country-defining” — the response on Twitter was predictably harsh.
On the other side, the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, found himself something of a Twitter sensation among admiring women who made #milifandom a brief but publicity-heavy trend in the campaign’s closing weeks.
Judging by the bills, Facebook is a vital campaign tool for the Conservatives. British news organizations have published invoices showing that the Conservatives have been spending about 110,000 pounds ($170,000) a month on Facebook ads (Obama spent $78 million on online ads for his 2012 re-election bid).
Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the two other main parties, use sites such as Facebook to a lesser extent, they say, because they have less money than the Conservatives. Instead, they have invested in software such as NationBuilder, which allows campaigns to filter undecided voters and alert potential supporters by matching electoral rolls and their online activity.
The parties are also using Twitter, which unveiled a postcode-targeting technology in time for the election, allowing advertisers to direct posts at users in specific locations.
Smaller parties such as the Green Party and the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, are relying on the “free” viral power of social media to burnish their appeal as grass-roots organizations and to make up for modest campaign budgets.
The Green Party said it had used crowdfunding to field candidates across 75 seats. An online petition signed by 280,000 people propelled its leader, Natalie Bennett, onto a television debate featuring party leaders after the broadcaster initially ignored her.
Campaign strategists and analysts share doubts about how much social media influences voting because, they say, Britons generally do not like discussing politics, whether in person or on Facebook.
“Tweets don’t win elections, people win elections,” said Matthew McGregor, the Labour Party’s chief digital strategist and political director of Blue State Digital, a consulting firm.