Caution ahead: Retail politics supercharged by power of social media – Noted


As it happens, a couple of Kiwi 20-somethings turn out to be at the cutting edge of digital messaging in political campaigns. 

Former Young Nats Sean Topham and Ben Guerin are reported to be running the digital media strategy for the Johnson campaign ahead of the UK election on 12 December, having won plaudits for helping win Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party a surprise victory in the Australian election earlier this year.

Their agency, Topham Guerin, which has also worked on successful campaigns at state level in Australia, and on National’s 2017 campaign on this side of the Tasman, provided the Morrison organisation with a stream of digital messaging on social media and through email marketing, producing videos and graphics to suit platforms and audiences.

A range of analytics tools was used to track online activity “to ensure we were getting our content in front of the right audience at the right time”, Topham told the New Zealand Herald. “Then we’d work to optimise that content and target it throughout the campaign based on quantitative and qualitative feedback on how it was performing.” Fears about how digital tools might be misused in the political sphere won expert vindication of the highest order at the end of October, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced – via a series of tweets, naturally – that the platform was banning all political advertising. “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect millions of lives,” Dorsey said.

The Twitter move contrasted strikingly with Facebook, which defends running paid political ads – even false ones – on the grounds of free speech.

Online political advertising, Dorsey said, brought “entirely new challenges to civic discourse”, including “machine learning-based optimisation of messaging”, “micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes”.

But are the dangers the same in a small, in-your-face democracy like ours?

Minister of Justice Andrew Little recently revealed plans to combat misinformation and manipulation in any campaigns leading up to referendums at next year’s election on legalising recreational cannabis, and potentially, voluntary euthanasia.

A special team in the Ministry of Justice will direct people to impartial information and guard against attempts to deliberately mislead the public.

Little said the government would be “looking out carefully” for suggestions social media or other platforms were being used to mislead people, as had happened in campaigns overseas.

The election itself – and the digital teams within parties big and small – will apparently go without such scrutiny. Perhaps Little hopes they will all keep each other on the straight and narrow.

To be fair, the referendums have the potential to be quite enough of a nightmare for the civil servants called upon to police debates without being drawn into them. To adjudicate in battles between political parties over what kind of information might be deemed misleading sounds like the job from hell.

One thing for voters, at least, to watch out for might be content that looks surprisingly gaudy or poorly designed. The Morrison campaign reportedly churned our purposely unsophisticated content it called “boomer memes”, often tying into something from popular culture, such as Game of Thrones. 

This kind of content will be shared by those who agree with the messaging it contains, but potentially also by opponents mocking the corniness of the presentation. In the digital world, anything that extends the reach of your message seems to be a victory. The sloganeering could be in Comic Sans, but there will be nothing unsophisticated about the way that reach and impact is being measured.

Should “National hates gangs” be seen in a similar light? If the digital tools tell National campaigners it strikes a chord, they won’t be worried if some of us think it sounds like juvenile bluster. 

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.

This article originally appeared here in

Leave a Reply