8 ways to win the general election with technology
Are you ready for some more democracy? Theresa May thinks you are. Get ready for a huge sense of deja vu as you return to your polling station for the third time in three years. Four in four, if you live in Scotland.
48 days isn’t very long for the main parties to campaign, and the bookies think it’s a foregone conclusion, so maybe it’s time to cut some corners with technology. Here are eight ways Theresa, Jeremy, Tim and the rest can use tech to their advantage…
1. Get your crowdfund on
Crowdfunding isn’t just for vinyl revivals and raising robots from the dead: budding politicians and political movements can tap into thousands of donors to give them a fighting chance against even the most overflowing of campaign war chests.
In the UK, the two most prominent political crowdfunding sites are More United – originally founded by Paddy Ashdown to promote candidates of a centre-left bent – and Crowdpac, which has no party affiliations and is more of a platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
“It’s disrupting the old way in which politics was financed, which tended to be big donors with a certain agenda that didn’t necessarily reflect the will of the public at large,” Crowdpac co-founder Paul Hilder told me when I talked to him back in January, when an election seemed blissfully far away.
And according to More United’s acting CEO Bess Mayhew, “a [cumulative] donation in the range of £10-20,000 will make you the largest donor to a candidate, which will give you an impact.” At the time of writing, More United has just broken through its £50,000 snap election fundraising goal and is closing in on its new target of £100,000.
On a smaller scale, Tim Farron will now face off against a fish finger for his Westmorland and Lonsdale seat, thanks to raising £1,488 via Crowdfunder. Well done, internet.
2. Get creepy with your adverts
Let’s say you manage to raise a small fortune via crowdfunding: what do you spend your new-found wealth on? A huge stack of leaflets would be the traditional response to that question, but why when you can get so much more personal thanks to the creepy world of online data harvesting?
Zac Goldsmith was able to target specific religious groups for targeted anti-Khan mailouts during the 2015 London mayoral election, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Facebook not only knows where you live, but also your political leanings, and that means, with our backwards first past the post voting system, a little money can go a long way. The handful of people whose votes actually matter can get messages tailored specifically to them.
How does this look in practice? Two years ago, the Conservative Party used it brilliantly, burning through £100,000 per month in Facebook ads. This is how The Guardian reported an example of this strategy in action:
“Another sponsored tweet, aimed squarely at Lib Dem waverers in the south-west, declared: ‘This general election is not like last time. By voting Lib Dem you could end up with a chaotic coalition of Ed Miliband and who-knows-what other parties that could put the economy, jobs and public services at risk.’ The accompanying image showed a swingometer with Cameron looking decidedly prime ministerial on one side, and a confused-looking Miliband, flanked by Salmond and new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on the other. An arrow pointed to a small amount of white space dividing them, beneath the headline: ‘Yours is one of 23 seats that will decide this election”
3. Spread your message via social media
Of course, you don’t have to pay for this. It’s cheaper and more effective in the long run to build up a huge social media following and spread your message directly, cutting out the middleman. Donald Trump has made this kind of approach look genuinely viable – with his tweets becoming headlines in and of themselves. Facebook and Twitter both have sharing functionality to spread the message beyond the core vote, too, even if newspapers studiously ignore you.
This does have drawbacks, of course, and some messages age badly to put it mildly:
And if you’re going to try crack the social meme format, for God’s sake, get someone who knows what they’re doing to design them.
4. Get the Mumsnet treatment
The Mumsnet session is a rite of passage for any politician, where they’re grilled by the members of the self-proclaimed “world’s most popular parenting website”. This Q&A takes the form of forum-submitted questions, some of which are answered while others go studiously ignored.
Generally there aren’t any wrong answers, as Mumsnet isn’t a hemoginous group of opinions. The one mortal sin? Ignore the “favourite biscuit” question at your peril: Gordon Brown did, and it caused him no end of trouble.
If you’re the kind of person who is led by their sweet tooth, Tim Farron tried to get away with Kendal mint cake in a shameless suck up to his constituency, while Jeremy Corbyn favours a shortbread despite being “totally anti-sugar on health grounds”. Theresa May hasn’t yet entered the Mumsnet arena, but there’s still time.
(Bonus biscuit: twice-vanquished Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham bafflingly managed to say his favourite biscuit was “beer and chips and gravy”. No wonder he lost to both Miliband and Corbyn.)
5. Be in seven places at once with a hologram
Campaigning politicians are constantly hampered by the electoral commission’s strict 24 hours in a day rule. They’re sticklers about this kind of thing. If only there was a way to be in more than one place at once…
Far-left French candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon did the impossible. Via hologram, from an actual rally in Dijon, his likeness appeared on stage in Nancy, Grenoble, Montpellier, Clermont-Ferrand, Nantes and the island of La Reunion.
Theresa May will be particularly pleased to hear that, as it means she’ll be able to take part in the televised debates that she’d just love to attend, if she weren’t so busy meeting voters. Now she can do both!
Okay, now onto the more unsavoury tactics. Those of a sensitive nature should cover their eyes.
6. Hack your opponents
Our classic pencil-and-paper ballots makes hacking the actual election a little trickier (unless you pay a lot of people to snap a lot of pencils), but computer hackers can still do a fair bit of damage.
For evidence of that, look across the pond to the American presidential election, where the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails – allegedly by Russia – did great damage to her campaign, and gave Trump plenty of ammunition to use against her over the months that followed.
And just think that all that damage might have been the result of one little typo…
7. Game social media
If your message is so lousy that you can’t get any real buzz on social media sites, ruling out #3, why not create your own buzz? During the US election, around four million election-related tweets were said to originate from just over 400,000 bots. The US constitution is very clear on this point: bots don’t get the vote.
Bots, sophisticated as they are, don’t (yet) have the personal touch of human beings, and thankful aspiring politicians can always dip into their pockets to pay humans to do their dirty work. The Chinese government is said to place 488 million fake comments every year, and the habit has spread to other countries, too.
Of course, one man’s fake comment is another’s “setting the record straight,” which is how Clinton SuperPAC-funded Barrier Breakers framed its funded chatter around the internet. Boasting that it had “addressed more than 5,000 people that have personally attacked Hillary Clinton on Twitter,” the campaign learned quickly that there’s a time and a place for transparency. Which is kind of ironic, when one of Trump’s biggest criticisms of Clinton was her lack of transparency.
Of course, you don’t have to pay. One classic internet scandal was the curious case of the Digg Patriots: a team of right-wing Americans who collaborated privately to systematically vote down any Digg material that they deemed to be too left wing, preventing it from surfacing on the now dethroned front page of the internet. Just because they cared.
8. Whip up some fake news
Fake news is nothing new, but as I wrote elsewhere, it took the shock election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States for it to be taken seriously. Now everyone is cracking down on the phenomenon, from Facebook to Google and YouTube. Because nothing looks less suspicious to conspiracy theorists than the two biggest names on the internet teaming up to eradicate non-mainstream news outlets.
Of course, fake news barons brought it on themselves. Fictional stories such as Hillary Clinton’s campaign team being involved in a massive paedophile ring, or the pope endorsing Donald Trump were not only effective, they were also hugely profitable: Buzzfeed News found a whole cottage industry of non-partisan Balkan teens cashing in on gullible voters keen to get their hands on more material with which to reinforce the walls of their own personal echo chambers.
So it’s probably too late to cash in on some vote-winning fake news. Theresa, Jeremy, Tim: you have 48 days to make your own headlines.