The social media political revolution wasn't televised - you missed it back in 2014

A recurring theme I see in commentary on the 2017 New Zealand election is how this year will be known as the "social media campaign". It really isn't. 2014 was the campaign that social media revolutionised, what'd you think all those kids were doing with those selfies with John Key? They were posting them to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram while at the same time being served up with a barrage of specially designed, targeted content from all of the major campaigns, political leaders, and third party campaigns.

I think part of the reason for this is that our traditional media companies themselves still don't quite get social media. Reading or watching much of their use and commentary on social media it's often dismissively served up as some sort of light entertainment medium that only millennials care about (the Paul Henry and AM Show's use of it's social media bunker is a good example of this), or as something that should have the country on the verge of a moral panic* (Stuff's recent "The Takeover: How Facebook is everywhere" was a good example of this).

The reality is that political social media is fundamentally the same as it was when it made such a big impact for Barack Obama first in the 2008 election, an approach that was ruthlessly refined by the 2012 U.S. elections. It's useful to sometimes think of political campaigns as an arms race - where each side continually looks for an edge over its rivals in terms of both getting its message to its audience, but then also converting that audience to voters. The development of this arms race from a data perspective is nicely documented up to 2012 in Sasha Issenberg's "The Victory Lab: The secret science of winning campaigns".

Essentially, Issenberg argues that George W Bush's team in 2000 and 2004 came up with a much better targeting model and method getting their messages out and converting voters to their side. In 2008 it was the Democrats and Obama's team, in large part thanks to a lot of earlier leg work by Howard Dean, who first clued onto the immense power of the web, email, and social media, to create two amazing campaigns from a content perspective, but underpinned by one of the best and most in-depth data operations ever seen. Dan Balz's "Collision 2012: The Future of Election Politics in a Divided America" picks up where Issenberg's work leaves off and provides a good platform for understanding how Obama's campaign leveraged social media to devastating effect against Mitt Romney and the GOP.

Which brings us to 2014 where National, Labour, the Greens, and Internet Mana all had significant social media and digital operations. It was just that traditional media was geared so heavily towards following the traditional on-the-ground elements of campaigning - campaign launches, policy announcements, debates and the like - that they simply didn't notice the importance or volume or work going on in the digital space.

The social media revolution happened to our political campaigns back in 2014, and it went entirely unnoticed except by those who were at the coalface of those functions. The tools and methods have been continuously refined since then, but the game- changing moment happened three years ago.

Without going into specifics, the numbers of unique New Zealanders who would have seen a piece of social media content from either John Key or the National Party on a weekly basis during that campaign were such that it was a massively more cost effective channel to reach a greater audience than other mediums could ever hope to deliver, and it had the added bonus of being an amazingly easy platform for people to engage with content in a way that traditional communication channels - face-to-face, TV, newspaper, radio, or physical mail/leaflets - simply couldn't (and still can't) match.

The political social media revolution well and truly happened back in 2014. The only difference between 2014 and 2017 is that traditional media companies have finally realised what people like Matthew Beveridge had already clicked onto in 2014 - that social media is a game-changer for the scale and nature of political campaigns in much the same way that radio, direct mail, and television have been in the past.


*Further to this point about inciting a moral panic about social media - the reaction to social media by traditional media across the world parallels, in many respects, the backlash to all new methods of mass communication as they're appeared by the previously dominant sources of information. Pamphleteers were routinely censored and harassed throughout Renaissance Europe, newspapers heavily controlled by governments in their early days.

More recently serial novelisations, when they first appeared in the 19th century, had established book publishers lashing out at these new shorter forms of writing with their appeal to the working class who were rapidly becoming more literate. Charles Dickens was one of those serial novelists who was slammed by the established content producers of the day for his work - especially its moral character, the social themes addressed in it, and its mass appeal - but is now considered to be one of our greatest literary figures.

There was a similar reaction from newspapers when radio stations first became commonplace, with many forbidding radio stations from reading their newspaper stories on air until after the physical papers had been delivered. Radio stations responded by employing their own news departments. The reaction to cinema and television in particular was similar too, with established players seeing the new technology as a threat to not only their own survival, but common decency.