I gave a speech this week to PES members of the Committee of the Regions about digital communication in the run up to the European Parliament elections. The Q&A with the members was especially interesting, and one question – from a mayor from Greece – prompted me to write this blog post. “What can we do,” he asked, “to be as good as the populists in our communication online?” You could turn this question around and ask why are populists better at digital communication than the ‘mainstream’? So here goes – here are some answers.
Simple messages are easier to communicate online
Good politics is full of nuance and complexity. Social media – be it the 280 characters of Twitter, or the constraints imposed by Facebook’s algorithm, or the need for imagery on Instagram – is the opposite. Simpler messages are easier to push on digital channels. Solution? Nicola Sturgeon manages it. Neelie Kroes managed it as a Commissioner. You need to be clear, to be consistent, to be punchy. But to also accept that not all sorts of messages work on all channels. Also – if you can dare – being personal also works. Avoid communication that is dry and formal.
Populists have a greater propensity to lie or to bend the truth
Brandolini’s law – that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it – is true in digital communication. The amount of time people spend refuting the latest tweet from Donald Trump or Nigel Farage is a hell of lot larger than the time it took to write the tweet in the first place. Solution? Don’t do it. Don’t reply. Unfollow those people. Don’t get drawn into their way of framing debates. Read Lakoff’s “Don’t think of an Elephant” and his work about Trump (tweet, blog post), and work out how you can frame debates to your own advantage. But definitely don’t fight lies with further lies.
Populists are better at using fakes and bot accounts
The extent of this can be debated, but there was – for example – an impact on the Brexit referendum from bots and semi-automated accounts. Solutions? Fight fire with fire and get your hands dirty and deploy your own bots and fakes is a step that most mainstream parties are unwilling to take – although I see the point of obfuscation in certain circumstances. Social networks have rather low incentives to act on fake news and disinformation on their networks (see Facebook’s role in the Rohingya crisis for example) – it may need law and regulation of social networks to solve this issue – so argue for that, but not in ways that constrain free speech. Training your activists and supporters and getting them to form online response units and networks – things like Operation Libero in Switzerland for example – are a must.
Populists have more money to throw at online marketing efforts
See the dark money being used on Facebook ads, and that the Leave Campaign has been shown to have broken spending rules in the 2016 referendum. Solutions? Investigate abuses properly, and change campaign finance laws to tighten up rules on what can be spent, and by whom. Demand compulsory transparency from social network firms so it is clear who is financing what (yes, you, Facebook!) Finance your own campaign efforts as well as you can – if you are a politician with upwards of 3 staff, employ 1 dedicated communication person. Sebastian Kurz has dozens of comms people working for him – and it works!
The mainstream parties do not back their good communicators
Traditional political parties are terrible at candidate selection. They favour the safe candidates over those who can actually communicate well. Alexander Stubb is an impeccable communicator, but the EPP went for the dour Manfred Weber as its Spitzenkandidat instead. Knives are out for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democrats. Solution? Back your good communicative people, even if it is uncomfortable sometimes! Don’t just go for the people who have been in the party for years, or ran your youth association. Someone with a massive communications reach outside the party is precisely what you need to bring into the fold, instead of being fearful of what those people might do.
Last but not least do not be defeatist about all of this. Closing your Twitter and Facebook accounts is not the solution, because then those networks only end up even worse (aka do not do a Robert Habeck).