Fake News, perhaps because of its association with one of the World’s most divisive politicians, was the Collins Dictionary word of 2017. A sign of how seriously the phenomenon is being taken in British politics, and how frustrated No.10 is about it, can be seen in the new national security unit set up to tackle fake news in the UK.
The prevalence of these concerns sheds new light on the importance of communication and image for politicians. If traditional news sources can be and are dismissed as ‘fake’ or biased, which way should politicians turn to get their message across to the electorate?
Take social media: since the 2015 General Election there have been significant changes in the type of social media used for political communication, with even the likes of Snapchat and Instagram affected. Since the 2017 Election Conservative MPs have been offered tutorials on how to use Instagram, help them communicate better with their constituents and the public more widely. Even ‘older’ forms of social media such as Facebook have a significant role in political communication, often through vehicles such as Momentum.
Does Fake News present a threat to traditional, mainstream media? The answer is not immediately clear. Although the reach of alternative sites such as The Canary or Another Angry Voice is vast (the latter had the 2017 election’s most shared article), traditional media still has an enormous presence. Recent research has shown that the BBC dominates when it comes to news online in Britain; half people surveyed said that that was the news website they visited most often.
What about speaking directly to voters? One of the most telling aspects of the 2017 General Election campaign was the success Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party found on the campaign trail, speaking at rallies and knocking on doors. ComRes research for the University of Leeds has shown that the election’s Question Time Special had an impact on undecided voters. For undecided voters aged 18-34, 45% said that the program helped them decide who to vote for, compared to 26% of over 55s. The opinion of 18-34 year olds and first time voters watching the program clearly benefitted Jeremy Corbyn more than Theresa May.
When it comes to political communication, social media has so far proved complementary to, rather than substitutionary for, traditional media. The water has been muddied, not drained. Politicians and political parties now have to master communications across a whole new host of different media forms, taking into account new factors such as age, universal authorship and the ability to communicate directly with everyone, 24-hours a day.
These challenges may cause sleepless nights for political advisers, but they do not necessarily make fake news inevitable. What is inevitable however is that social media makes it possible for voters to communicate directly with politicians. At one level this is clearly to be welcomed since it ought to enhance political dialogue and accountability. But it also brings with it the additional pressures of being expected to respond promptly, of unpleasant trolling and the risk of being caught off-guard.
Any politician wishing to succeed in 2018 may therefore need to add ‘not sleeping’ and ‘self-control in the face of severe provocation’ to their skills set.