Rapid responses and targeted messaging: Matthew McGregor. Photo: Micha Theiner/Eyevine
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Labour’s most powerful weapon: its digital campaign

Cooler, younger and tech savvy – meet the team led by Obama’s former digital strategist which Labour hopes will win it the election. 

In the sprawling control room of Labour’s headquarters at One Brewer’s Green, thrumming activity signals the party’s election machine cranking into gear.

The sleek, glass-walled Westminster office – a far cry from the shabby premises in nearby Victoria Street that the party departed two years ago – is branded with flashes of red: the chairs, intrays and mugs all stand out in Labour’s trademark vermillion.

Beyond the fieldworkers manning the phones and the suited apparatchiks handling the finances lies Labour’s most powerful weapon in next year’s election battle – its digital campaign team.

The online campaigners resemble the staff body of a Silicon roundabout tech start-up: a senior female staffer wafts by in harem pants and a slouchy cardy. As Labour MP Michael Dugher, who heads the party’s communications and day-to-day election campaigning, mused: “They look different – a lot cooler than the rest of us. And they’re younger.”

The casually-attired team comprise individuals from a variety of backgrounds: some are long-established Labour campaigners, some rose up through specialist web-based strategy agencies, others hail from NGOs.

The star of the team is Matthew McGregor, the Norfolk-raised digital strategist who rose to prominence as Barack Obama’s online attack dog in the 2012 Presidential race.

Leading the US President’s online “rapid response unit”, the “Backroom Brit”, as he became known, became a darling of the American liberal media and a scourge of the Republican party.

He pioneered real-time defence against the opposition – shooting down Republican claims on social media as soon as they appeared – as well as digital attack tactics.

Even more significant than his contribution to the Twitter propaganda wars was McGregor’s use of digital media to raise funds and recruit volunteers.

Thanks in large part to McGregor’s online strategy, the Democrats raised more than £400m through online donations in 2012, according to Time magazine, and their digital campaign mobilised an army of grass-roots activists. Now Labour chiefs have placed their hope in him to repeat the phenomenon in the UK in the run-up to the general election next May.

Although the party’s finances are strained, and debts loom large, Labour has invested heavily in building its digital strategy and hiring a top team.

It will likely prove a canny decision: although Labour raised more money than the Conservatives last year, the Tories look set to outspend Labour by as much as three times, according to recent press estimates. Labour has calculated, wisely, that online advertising has the potential to reach greater swathes of the population for less money.

Digital content created in-house can be produced by staff or volunteers for nothing, while a single motorway billboard can cost up to £2,500 for three months.

Dugher explained: “Digital is the big leveller. The Tories can get their voter ID by paying private companies to canvass on their behalf. But while they can outspend us, they can’t out-campaign us.”

He elaborated: “We’ll tweet a survey with a ‘donate’ button at the end and people click on it,” said Dugher. He declined to specify how much they have raised via online donations so far, but said: “We’re starting from a low base, but it’s working.”

Small donations made to the party by members was Labour’s largest source of funding in 2013, raising more than £8m; it is likely that the party’s emotive online campaign, and the ease of donating on the web, will lead to even higher revenues from small donations this year.

After the Conservatives’ fundraising gala ball last month, in which £45,000 was paid for a bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher and a Russian donor controversially bid £160,000 for a tennis match with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Labour is desperately hoping grassroots donations increase.

McGregor is defensive about repeating for Labour his online fundraising success in America: “No we aren’t the US – we’re not going to raise a billion dollars online, but I don’t think we actually want a billion sloshing around in political campaigns.”  

The party is preparing for their own gala fundraising event on the muggy July afternoon that I visit their headquarters (the star bid at the auction turns out to be £24,000 offered for two football matches with Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor). The fundraiser, explains McGregor, is the reason he has thrown on “a suit for the first time in nine months”, a slate two-piece that matches his badger-like hair, adorned with a pink patterned tie.

Eschewing tech jargon, he explains how Labour’s online campaign will reap modest financial dividends. The key is to “connects the dots” for supporters – that is, provide past and potential donors a concrete example of how funds have been used previously, in order to nudge them to donate again to secure a Labour win in 2015.

A recent Labour video thanks the party’s 18,000 donors for their financial support, which funded the recruitment of 100 regional organisers. The clip introduces Maddy, a wholesome, beaming Labour organiser in Cambridge, whose hard work swept the city’s council to Labour in last May’s local elections, ending 14 years of Lib Dem control. The narrative is upbeat and rousing.

McGregor has a knack for masterminding content that goes viral, such as the deftly-edited clips of Mitt Romney slip-ups that he created in 2012. The emphasis is on innovation, and he has his team on the lookout for fresh formats in online political campaigns the world over, including in the US, Canada, France, Scandinavia and Australia.

Not all digital campaign innovations are easily replicable in the UK; parliamentary and legislative systems lend themselves less easily to online campaigning than presidential systems, such as the US and France. It is easier to frame a single narrative around a handful of personalities vying for the top job and sell it to an entire nation, than promote hundreds of constituency candidates to small segments of the population.

A report by the Hansard Society in 2010 warned that “online campaigning works better in some contexts than it does in others and this is particularly true for personality-led or issue-based campaigns.”

It noted, however, that this online trend for British political parties had the potential to change, particularly as “local and national representatives in the UK make everyday use of the internet to establish stronger links with supporters.” The report stated: “Digital campaigns are increasingly significant in electoral contexts.”

All political parties in the UK were late to exploit the power of the internet in campaigning. Although they began harvesting information from early-era internet forums as early as the late 1990s, online communications were viewed as inherently risky until recently.

Now all three of the main political parties are catching up on social media. With 145,000 followers on Twitter, Labour has 30,000  more than the Tories and more than double the Lib Dems, but with 180,000 followers on Facebook, Labour still trails the Conservatives by 60,000.

While small, these numbers align with other nations’ political parties’ presence on social media. In the US, for example, the Democrats have 317,000 followers, while the Republicans have 285,000, and the US population is more than four times that of the UK. The difference in the online presence of political leaders is striking, however: Obama has 44m Twitter followers, while David Cameron has not yet reached 730,000 and Ed Miliband trails on 330,000.

He is clear all content serves a specific purpose. “If we can be funny or entertaining, great, if we can move people with tales of those who’ve lost out under this Government, then great... But it’s important to think: what is digital for? Our end goal isn’t creating content. Our goal is to win votes and get Ed into No 10.”

The party has experimented with new tools to see how many people it can reach at once. Last November, the team tried out a new tool called the Thunderclap, which allowed the party to tweet the same message from almost 850 consenting activists’ Twitter accounts simultaneously. The tweet, which promoted Labour’s energy bill price freeze policy, reached 4.5m users, the party claimed.

McGregor explains that more often, however, tailored content is narrowly targeted at specific demographics. While some emails reach 100,000 subscribers; other infographics are aimed at just 5,000 target voters.

The platforms the team use also take into account the demographics of users. “People in their twenties and thirties are more likely to be on Twitter than people in their fifties. Teens are more likely to be on snapchat,” says McGregor. So is SnapChat next? “No… it’s something Senator Rand Paul did, which I thought was a bit bizarre.”

Labour also uses Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, AudioBoo - “an audio platform where you can post and share audio files – so clips of speeches, interviews, soundbites”, and Stackla – an “innovative way of sharing visual content”.

Ed Miliband shared his first Vine last month – a six-second clip of the Tour de France passing in Westminster. A senior source close to the Labour leader admitted to me: “Ed’s not particularly tech-savvy himself,” but impressed Miliband’s support for digital political campaigning: “He’s engaged with the campaign and what it can do.”

Given the correlation between youth and the adoption of digital technologies and social media, is Labour’s support base, which pollsters show is younger than the Tories or Lib Dems, reached more easily and effectively by digital campaigning?

“I don’t think that applies as much as it used to, the age thing,” says McGregor, shaking his head vigorously. “My mother sends me pictures of her grandkids on her iPad, posts pictures on Facebook.”

He is diplomatic about the digital campaigns being launched by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. “I respect them both” he says.

He adds, however: “I think the Tories are determined to run a really nasty, negative campaign. I don’t think that’s what people want, whether that’s online or offline.” Pausing pointedly, he says: “That’s their call.”

McGregor built his reputation on digital attacks, however, so I ask him about Labour’s own negative online campaigning. “Negative?” he asks, before correcting me with a mischievous smile: “I think you mean ‘contrast campaigning’. I think it’s important that people hear what we have to say is wrong with the Tory government and explain the contrast between the way that Ed will lead and this Government will lead.”

So far Labour has been assiduous in sharing information that demonstrates, they claim, the Conservatives’ “broken promises” on the NHS, education and the economy.

Although ruthless online, McGregor’s virtual reputation belies an enthusiastic, expansive and good-natured manner in real life. While he is the big name in the digital strategy community, he remains a team player – frequently impressing the importance of collaboration in all online campaigns, and deflecting any praise onto his colleagues.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he does not believe digital campaigning can overtake traditional doorstep campaigning.

He explains: “There’s intrigue with online – it’s new and exciting, and new tactics and tools are coming out all the time. But ultimately the most persuasive engagement someone in the Labour party can have with a voter is knocking on their door and talking to them about the issues that matter to them and people on their street.

The virtual world should be a complement to reality; Labour’s digital campaign is not about “making sure people are bent over their smart phones all day – that’s not right”. Instead, says McGregor: “Often it’s about persuading people to turn their computers off altogether and hit the streets.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.