Digital campaigning has never been more important

Holly Whitbread is the Conservative Essex County Councillor for Epping & Theydon Bois and Epping Forest District Councillor for Epping Lindsey and Thornwood Common. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

In a Covid world, digital campaigning has never been more important, as was demonstrated in the recent local elections. Whilst social platforms did not paint the whole picture, they became an important arena in sharing key messages and promoting candidates.

Although digital campaigning plays a key role in the weeks and days leading up to the election, they play an even more crucial role over a longer period. Councillors and candidates should be present in the online space and engage with their communities. Building up a digital profile locally allows candidates to raise awareness of who they are, what they are doing and what they believe in. It also enables them to provide support and share information with the people they are seeking to represent. This was particularly important during the pandemic, where Facebook was integral in communicating with residents. The idea of a virtual neighbourhood grew exponentially during the months of lockdown.

I have been a District Councillor for the past five years, and I would say I distinguish myself from other local representatives through my accessibility and proactiveness online. I try and be as available as possible to residents in my area, providing support, sharing information and signposting. As well as running my own personal social channels, a few years ago I established a ‘Community Hub Group’ on Facebook which now has almost 2,000 members. This online community group is a forum for lively discussion, where residents can ask questions to their councillors and useful local information is shared. In addition to this group, I run a local Instagram page with well over a thousand followers, which also shares local information, as well as promoting local businesses.

Outside of social media, I write a weekly community newsletter covering my County Council division and the surrounding area, which is sent every Friday by email. I started this weekly mailer earlier this year and it now reaches around a thousand people. This provides me with the opportunity to collaborate and support local businesses, organisations, and charities.

Beyond community engagement, which is essential for any local activists, there is also a vital role for online ‘peacetime campaigning’. Local political parties and their representatives must keep in touch with residents all year round, for example by sharing good news stories and updates, as well as engaging with surveys to maintain a presence outside of election time. Outside of elections is the time to be increasing followership through sponsored posts and appealing content.

During an election campaign itself, social media is a great way to broadcast to the electorate. It also allows you to reach more people than you could purely through traditional methods of campaigning or where resources must be diverted elsewhere.

For myself, during my recent local election campaign, I tried to maintain a positive campaign online, sharing messages of what I had achieved and what I hope to deliver in the future, as well as using social media to stoke momentum in my local campaign. Though, on occasion, I found social media to be an essential tool for setting the record straight in response to misleading claims being made by my political opponents. While there are limitations (I don’t think Facebook will ever replace face-to-face canvassing), targeted posting enables you to reach some of your audience quickly and effectively.

Without a doubt, digital campaigning is here to stay! To be effective, modern councillors or candidates must be present and active in the online space. It enables representatives to serve their communities more effectively, while building up their own personal profile.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Digital Tories.

The consequences of ‘gagging’ Trump

GUEST POST: Mario Creatura is Head of Strategic and Digital Communications at Virgin Money. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.

Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?

While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.

This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).

For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.

This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?

Too little, too late?

In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?

His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’

The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?

The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.

After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.

What’s next?

While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.

For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.

For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.

Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?

The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?

It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.

Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.

For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Influence.