Winning elections in a pandemic

Alex Walker is Director at Mercury Public Affairs and is Leader of the Milton Keynes Conservatives Group. Follow on Twitter

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an intriguing impact on election results around the world. Some incumbents have stormed home, others have struggled, and some have lost to successful challengers. I have been lucky over the past year to have worked on a number of international campaigns and I have seen first hand how Covid has impacted the public mood in different countries and in very different ways depending on the approach of the candidates, political parties and their message. 

In March 2020, across the world, Covid-19 unsurprisingly stormed onto the list of issues that concerned voters. The fear was real, the lack of understanding of the virus was deeply unnerving and voters were worried about their health and the health of their family. Economic concerns quickly came into play and remain in the most part today, and then more recently the vaccine rollout has been a central priority for voters. 

For incumbents facing an election in such an environment, there is an endless balancing act between effective government communications and incredibly delicate campaigning. I saw this most profoundly working with the Mayor of Kyiv Vitaly Klitschko in the lead up to Ukraine’s municipal election in October 2020. Throughout the campaign, Covid was an extremely fluid issue and there was a consistent and, I’d argue, helpful tension between public health communications and campaigning. What became clear early was that while voters were forgiving of the decisions to implement restrictions, they wanted them to be articulated clearly. Moreover, they wanted to see the Mayor being busy and keeping vital services moving. We brought in daily live streamed daily briefings, we set up an economic recovery council of business leaders and ensured that the Mayor was regularly talking about protecting jobs and income. The Mayor ended up being re-elected with more than 50% of the vote. 

Back home in the local elections in May, the Conservative party benefited greatly from an impressive vaccine rollout. The party leaned into the vaccine bounce with daily updates on the number of jabs in arms and memorable social media graphics for key milestones. The media helped promote the importance of getting jabbed and thousands of people posted their little appointment cards online, essentially acting as micro influencers for the party’s central campaign message. In Milton Keynes, where I led a group of 16 Conservative councillors, we were seeing it on the doorstep, with one colleague being told by a resident: “You have 4 jabs and 2 votes from this household.” Thanks to that narrative and some good local issues, I now lead the largest group on MK Council with 24 brilliant Conservative councillors. And of course, there was success up and down the country. 

A good vaccination programme isn’t a silver bullet, as experienced by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s March elections. Israel has been held up as the world leader for vaccinations, a rollout designed, implemented and well communicated by Netanyahu’s Government. However, working with Naftali Bennet and his new party Yamina, the data was showing many other issues in play: the economy, crime and, above all else, questions over the character of Netanyahu. My colleague George Birnbaum, who first helped Bibi get elected in ‘97 and has been involved in every national election since, identified early that voters were framing the election as pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi. Naftali Bennett, along with parties from the left and right, strengthened the anti-Bibi sentiment and were able to secure enough seats to eventually form a new and historic coalition government.  

I want to finally jump over to Romania and its general election in November 2020. A country dominated by the Socialist Democratic Party (PSD) since the fall of communism. A party that has been dogged with corruption, at times resulting in tragedy as seen in the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire which saw 64 young people lose their life. A minority Liberal Government had taken over after PSD voted itself out of power in 2019. The Liberal Government had done an impressive job handling the Covid crisis, early to lockdown and build capacity into the health system. Just two months before the election they were riding high in the polls, an 8% advantage over PSD. Could it be that Covid was about to act as an accelerator and end the robust structural vote for the socialists? No. Despite a relatively good campaign from the Liberals and their strong record in government, PSD still returned the largest vote share and secured the largest number of MPs. Thankfully for the Liberals they were able to grab support from a new party USR PLUS and still formed a government. But, it did highlight Covid’s disruptive limits. 

We can be certain that Covid-19 and its impact on elections is not yet over. France’s 2022 Presidential election will be one to watch. The handling of the pandemic will define incumbents’ records whether they want it to or not. When they face their next election, they will need to decide whether they embrace it or try to define their campaign on other issues. As ever, there is no one size fits all strategy, as I have experienced over the last 18 months in which campaigns have aged me dramatically!  

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This piece was written for our website.

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.

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This piece was written for Influence.