As another General Election looms, the battle for No10 will fundamentally be fought and won online. In a special series, we will investigate the tactics and dark arts being used by all of the parties to shape the outcome. Today's Part 6 looks at the Lib Dem strategy to persuade Remainers to rally behind Jo Swinson
The European Election in May symbolised a momentous shift in British politics. While the newly-founded Brexit Party won 32pc of the vote, the Liberal Democrats emerged as the largest Remain supporting party, sending 16 MEPs to Europe.
Now, emboldened by its new leader Jo Swinson, the party is ramping up its digital campaign in a bid to harness the Remain vote in December. Its social media campaigns have so far have been slick and targeted - but will they prove effective?
Professional and credible
While Boris Johnson ultimately emerged victorious from the Conservative Party leadership contest, many believed that it was Rory Stewart who triumphed on social media.
His nationwide tour, documented on Twitter via the “RoryWalks” hashtag, transformed him from a relatively unknown International Development Secretary to an online sensation.
Central to his appeal was the promotion of an image of authenticity. His shaky camera work and dishevelled attire were a far cry from the usual stage managed photo opportunities often seen in campaigns .
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats's social media feeds are filled with glossy images of Jo Swinson next to her campaign promises and optimistic taglines promising a "brighter future".
According to one Lib Dem source, this reflects a conscious effort by the party to convey a professional and credible image of Swinson to the public.
“After losing so many seats in past elections, there are still elements of the public who haven’t taken the Liberal Democrats seriously,” the insider said.
“I do think that she is trying to project an image of taking it seriously and showing that she is someone who could genuinely lead a country.”
“Other politicians from the bigger parties have come from a place where they are more likely to be taken seriously anyway so they can play around with their image a bit more, because they know that they have a higher base of support.”
This sentiment is shared by Rob Blackie, a specialist in digital strategy and competitive messaging. He argues that as a woman attempting to disrupt the two party political structure, Swinson could be judged more harshly by the public if she mimicked the eccentric communication methods and personal style of her Labour and Conservative counterparts.
“People aren’t used to envisioning a Lib Dem leader as Prime Minister - so she has to look like a Prime Minister and therefore she has to look professional," he said.
“It is inevitable that there is a level of sexism about how men and women appear and a woman who is scruffy in politics will not be given leeway in politics in the way that a man will.”
The party is keen to emphasise that Swinson fits the professional image of a leader, however in a political crowded field it recognises that showcasing her personality and charm will be key.
At 39, Swinson became the first woman and youngest individual to lead the Liberal Democrats from July of this year. Against the well-worn figures of Johnson and Corbyn, the party is also keen to position her as the likable and engaging face of change.
“A few months ago people didn’t know who Jo was and most people still don’t have a strong opinion of her yet,'' Blackie explained.
The decision to exclude Swinson from the ITV television debate has allowed her to use social media to present herself as both an authentic and authoritative voice for Remainers.
In recent weeks, she has launched appeals directly to her 168k Twitter followers and argued that the establishment - namely the media and the Labour and Conservative parties - are too afraid to challenge her.
Swinson's tongue in cheek approach relies on humour, GIFs and the hashtag “DebateHer”, and it appears to be paying off and building her profile: her tweets about the election debates in particular are fast becoming her most liked and shared content.
According to Matt Walsh, a senior lecturer in media at Cardiff University, in this election, parties will be looking to amplify the social media accounts of their leaders.
He said: “If you look at all of the parties across the board - what is working for them is personality.”
“The accounts that are directly affiliated to the leaders themselves are pushing the personalities of the leaders really hard. The more anonymous party accounts are not really getting the same sort of cut through.”
Clear repetitive messaging
In the European Elections, the Liberal Democrats’ clear message of “Bollocks to Brexit” saw them gain 20pc of the vote.
According to Nick Wakeling, a Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate for Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North seat, repeating a simple anti-Brexit message over and over again will prove vital in December.
He said: “It's the nature of the debate at the moment, it's very hard to deliver a nuanced message. We saw in the EU election that Labour got tied up in a very complicated narrative about it’s stance on Brexit - they are in danger of doing the same thing again.”
“So as a party you’ve got to try and land the messages effectively. In the EU elections we did really well and I think part of that was the use of the very simple “stop Brexit” messaging that was able to cut through.”
Throughout the past two weeks, the party has aggressively shared colourful text based posts often featuring the slogan “Stop Brexit”. Matt Walsh, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, argues that this technique, also used successfully by Labour, offers voters an easy way to connect with party messaging.
“It’s that sort of clicktivism, you see a message that you can get behind on Twitter," he says. "You don’t have to watch a video, it’s a simple engagement and you quickly like, and get behind them - it’s all about simplicity.”
This election, the party will continue to utilise Facebook as a primary campaigning tool to target its anti-Brexit message. Recent analysis by Wired and CrossCheck found that between October 30 and November 7, spent between £13,95 to £67,022 on Facebook ads. The party also ran more than 537 Facebook ads - more than all of the other leading parties combined.
Campaigners also hope that by linking Brexit to their domestic policy the Lib Dems can avoid being seen as a mere protest vote.
One Lib Dem insider said: “We've seen that even a few months ago, when members of the public were surveyed - there were still a significant portion of people who weren’t aware that the Lib Dems were the “Remain” party.
"So we do just have to keep repeating the same message over and over again to have the same level of reach that the main parties do.”
“We have plans to showcase other policies - the election can only stay on one topic for so long. Obviously domestic issues are so important but from our perspective - you can’t discuss the NHS without discussing the impact of Brexit, you can’t discuss climate change without discussing the impact of Brexit - it’s the elephant in the room.”
Collecting data on social media
While racking up thousands of likes and views on social media is one indicator of public interest in the party, the Lib Dems are hoping to transform virtual shares into volunteers, donations and votes.
According to documents seen by the Telegraph, in the EU election, the Lib Dems developed a rigid email targeting system. Individuals were labelled under four categories - “prospect”, “voter”, “supporter” and “member”. This enabled the party to tailor emails, taking into account the recipients prior engagement with the party.
Followers of the main Liberal Democrat Twitter and Facebook pages are also frequently encouraged to visit the party website to show support by signing "online petitions" or offering "vote pledges". In doing so, individuals have to submit their full names, postcodes and email addresses into an online form.
According to Blackie, the importance of collecting emails should not be underestimated. “Email is still a huge part of campaigns,” he says. “It doesn’t get discussed much but it is probably where most of the fundraising for all of the parties comes from.”
Last month, Sky News revealed that the party uses a sophisticated computer model to estimate the age, first language and voting intentions of every voter in the UK. The model assigns at least 42 percentage ratings to individuals and uses data from a wide variety of sources from the electoral register to census area classifications.
As a smaller party with fewer resources, the Liberal Democrats try to use all of the tools available in order to assess the likelihood of an individual supporting the party and target information accordingly, according to a party insider.
“I think the idea is that by collecting emails and communicating with people in a more direct way - they are more likely to become campaigners, get to know their local party etc”, she says.
As the country faces it's fourth national vote in five years, the effectiveness of the party's digital strategy remains to be seen.
The latest polling has placed the party in third place and Swinson has refused to specify her plan of action in the event of a hung parliament. In recent weeks, the party has also been criticised for using misleading language and data in it’s leaflets and on social media.
Individuals close to the party however, are confident in their messaging and their leader.
“It’s a pity that something as terrible as Brexit is what’s taken us to gain traction but we are also glad that we are cutting through on the most important issue of the day”, one Lib Dem insider said.
“So we are quietly confident that we are going to do well - ultimately we do think that Jo is a great candidate for Prime Minister.”