Social media and Mass media: Who has the Political Midas touch?

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The phrase Quid pro quo would best describe the current relationship between social media and politics with each in a symbiotic relationship with the other. But this is not a story about social media nor Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm synonymous with data mining. This is an analysis on how politics is leveraging on the power of data, and how Kenyan politics could adapt to the global playbook.

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My recent engagement in a webinar hosted by Stefan Turkheimer, an Attorney & Political Strategist and a former Deputy Political Director for Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential Campaign, would offer me vital lessons.

The role of finance in Politics

With a haul of $796.8 million in political Ads spent in the 2019/2020 US election cycle to date, the role of finance in politics cannot be understated. With a 59.4% share among political advertisers, Facebook remains the dominant digital platform for political ads dwarfing Google, on a ratio of 3 to 1, which is ranked second with a 18.2% share.

Despite the presence of Election Financing laws, which spell out spending limits for political campaigns, the ‘Digital game’ makes it a lot harder to monitor or track. Even in the US where there are comparatively tough election donation laws, Candidate and/or Ideal affiliated groupings are now fundraising & outspending candidates’ teams in Digital Ads spend. In Kenya, this may not apply partly because of weak legal frameworks, and at worst, blatant disregard or abuse of existing laws.

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Of note, though, is the leveling power these digital platforms bring to what was erstwhile expensive campaign politics. As an incumbent, you had a splitting advantage against your opponent especially as regards branding, the establishment, access to finances and the media. But the digital space has now turned the tables; if you have an innovative & efficient opponent, they can negate your advantage in a snap.

Leveraging on data to enhance competitive advantage

Imagine a system where the bulk of the global population are active participants, sharing about their lives & key events happening such as birthdays, deaths, weddings or anniversaries. Where they live, who are their family, when they were born as well as their ages. The biodata even going further to reveal their relationship status, what languages they speak, what interests them, their academic qualifications, their ethnic affinity, parental status, where they live and their political affiliation thereby exposing their behavioral patterns.

This is the power of Facebook’s Ad Targeting system. At the click of a button from the comfort of your desk, Facebook enables you to Profile particular individuals at particular locations, whose support you need. You can tailor targeted messages for such populations through use of data available on the platform, Facebook will deliver at just the right moment when your target audience is online. This means you can be virtually present at the precise moment & location, when and where they are, influencing the decision they’re about to make thereby leveraging on available data to enhance your competitive advantage.

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This is what is what digital experts refer to as Behavioral or Interest-based Targeting. This has provided Facebook with an edge compared to let’s say political Google, who’s targeting options are more limiting because you have to cookie-match.

Why Facebook Needs Politics

Social Media is the modern word-of-mouth, we don’t tell people things anymore; we see them online. And none else understands the power of this dynamic, as our politicians. In the Kikuyu dialect, the term ‘politician’ loosely translates to “one who complains” or “makes an argument”. It’s all about the power of your mind and how the message resonates with your targeted audience, better explained by a phrase by Canadian communication expert Marshal McLuhan ‘the medium is the message’ in his study of the media.
The trick when making campaign pit stops & speeches is to have an intricate understanding of who your audience at a particular location are & what message will provoke attachment. That’s how you become popular & win votes.

Why does Facebook allow Political Ads?

Facebook needs to support the political ecosystem because over and above the huge tranches of money it brings & influential lobbyists.
Political conversation drives engagement on Facebook, via posts in groups, pages & personal profiles. This is important for Facebook as it keeps users on the platform which converges with the political interests of political players.

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The Power of Micro-targeting

Engaging Digital, conspirators has proven crucial in countering political opponents’ narratives in real-time. Take an example where the Washington Times, perceived as a liberal-leaning publisher by conservatives, publishes an article that conspirators feel attacks their candidate, in this case, DJT. The conspirators could create alternative conspiracy theorist content and use the power of micro-targeting by creating custom audiences that target undecideds and non-voters, whom they deem to share in conservative ideals. This in effect has the potential to lock out the decided who are competitor leaning to promote that conspiracy content.

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To put this into context, a case where Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto’s philanthropic team donated foodstuff in Kiambu county, could bring the narrative closer home. Within the week, an impish donor is said to have distributed unsafe food branded as DP team’s donations in the same location. It meant to change the conversation from the good deed that endears one political player to the people to an alternative narrative that quickly trended on social media and on local news websites, both credible & conspiracy blogs.

Digital Ad platforms once hooked into machine learning applications make it possible to identify persons who resonate with your candidate’s messaging and your competitors, but also those who don’t resonate with your competitors as well as the neutrals. You can then create unique sets of messages and classify each of these groups, then create fake content on your competitor and feed it to those who support your candidate and the undecided with the hope of tilting their support. Of note, however, is that you can ensure Facebook does not display this promoted content to your opponent or his/her supporters. Therefore, they may never know of the false information being peddled about them, which makes it impossible to respond to it or deny it.

This is a departure from the past where the only impactful channels of communication were TV, Radio or Print and launching a sneak attack on your opponent meant that the media would broadcast it to everyone.

“The Puppet Role of Kenya’s Media”

Media Business is largely an event-driven business with investigative journalism proving an expensive venture. With media houses smarting from a spate of losses to Digital media platforms who have disrupted their advertising-based business models, the easier approach is now to play the game, leveraging on the power of Click-bait, which political players have learnt to manipulate.

Most will monitor trending topics on Twitter, do some minimal research, push out news stories on their websites, then post it on Twitter tagging the hashtag to gain more viewers. Or create sensational political headlines that they know will trend online, driving traffic to their website & broadcast channels.

However, politicians use Social Media to direct media coverage of events. For any media company to be in the business, they need advertisers. The model is simple, Advertising follows audiences & Audiences follow Content.

Unlike their Chinese peers whom the rest of the world has branded as “China’s keyboard warriors”, these share a belief in China’s cause. Kenya’s twitter “keyboard mercenaries” do not align to a political grouping based on ideals but based on a financial incentive. However, if trending on twitter won elections in Kenya, then politicians like Peter Kenneth & Jimnah Mbaru would have won.

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Cambridge Analytica & Use of Ads

It all started with Obama’s Campaign when the political world became alive to the power of Social Media in political campaigning. Then there was Cambridge Analytica. These were purveyors of misinformation. Unlike all the process described above, which is purely within the rules & legal, Cambridge Analytica stole data & cheated the game to win.

What of Political Campaign Ads

The trick is not to find just the Undecided but also nonvoters. The undecided does not align to a particular party that alleges to represent a particular set of ideals. What they have are very strong divergent views from either or both, the Liberals & the Conservatives. These are easy to find & cheap to target with messaging that could sway their choice for your candidate.

However, using Artificial Intelligence & Machine learning, Cambridge Analytica figured out another set of people whom most campaign teams did not target. These are the Non-voters, people strong on ideals but not likely to turn out to vote. Most campaign teams ignore them as they are lower in the political digital marketing funnel. Cambridge Analytica realized this & targeted them, despite the exercise being overly expensive as opposed to those who you are sure will vote and are cheaper to target.

Here’s the difference, Free Education is an Ideal, however Affordable Education is Policy. Nonvoters do not show up because they view politicians as wishy-washy. Politicians are always playing safe and use policy messaging. Guys like US president Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who’s Ideal based message presents a definitive result, appealed to them. For them, this was everything.

This Ideal based messaging makes it even more challenging for the media to act as a neutral fact-checker. Jonathan Swift opinion that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” rings true. The general populous will trust a politician who aligns his/her message to their ideals. Trump & Brexit campaigns targeted nonvoters & engaged with them on their ideals, hence their higher turnout.

It is my believe that a presidential candidate who adapts this Ideal based approach in their messaging has a prospect of overcoming the tribe-driven campaign political barriers in Kenya.

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