Social Networking and Political Campaigning – what to expect from Theresa May’s performance on Twitter.

My recent publication Me, You, AND Us: Constructing Political Persona on Social Networks during the 2015 UK General Election, examined the Twitter and Facebook presence the seven leading political parties. Based on this, I want to suggest a number of things we should look for in the coming days in terms of the transformation of social media performances and construction of persona on Twitter specifically.

In the next week, I’ll focus on the leader’s of each party in turn and suggest how their performances will be shaped (or not) by those of the leaders who fought the last campaign. Given she’s already off to a head start as the only leader who knew an election was coming, let’s start with Theresa May.

The short campaign period before a General Election (which will start officially on May 1st) can be understood as a period of heightened activity for not only social media but also in terms of display of the relationships with mainstream- and particularly news – media. In this instance, given the snap call, we should extend that period of activity from now until voting day.

MAY: Social Media Page immediately following announcement of GE 2017 (11.30am, Tuesday, April 17)

Theresa May’s social media presence is about to extend considerably, with a significantly higher number of posts, using a broader range of production tools. She has much ground to gain on Cameron in terms of followers with just 281,ooo today compared to his 948,632 at the beginning of the 2015 short campaign and the Conservative campaigning team will focus on raising her profile.

Given this reduced presence  – and following the pattern shown by political leaders with fewer followers at the last GE – her followers should increase significantly by percentage in a relatively short period of time. An excellent showing would be the 30% lift Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed during the short campaign. Increasing by just 5.8% as Cameron could be considered a poor show, and will give us an indication of whether her message is resonating with Twitter users.

As the Conservative campaigning team kicks into gear, we should expect to see around the same levels of performance using the same ranges of technologies – with video pieces to camera and professionally taken pictures from the campaign trail – tweeted and posted to Facebook using clear production and dissemination patterns across each campaigning day.

 

TWITTER PATTERN: David Cameron during the short campaign 2015.

 

The pattern of Cameron’s performance, gives us a guide of what we might expect. Conservative HQ consider the last campaign a success and certainly it worked well in terms of shifting news agendas and keeping them on course during the campaign.

Cameron’s social media presence dominated discourse largely due to the coverage of it in mainstream media. The social media team are likely to keep the same framework for levels and times of tweets, framing them in relation to the campaign trail.

CAMERON’S DISCOURSE: text cloud of Tweets during the 2015 short campaign.

 

However, there will be some differences. As the text cloud of all of Cameron’s tweets during the short campaign demonstrates, his social media persona was placed as a “Me” to “You” conversation linked significantly around the “family”. His own family was a part of that conversation, linking him as a family man to the prosperity and security of the nation.

Without children to base discourse around, May’s performance will be around the values of “ordinary” people. This can already be seen on her Twitter landscape which carries the slogan, “A Country Which Works for Everyone“.

Rather than as a “mother”, her team may also construct her persona performance around discourses of “daughter” and “wife” as a means to attempt to create familial bonds with the electorate which is a key component of successful social media performance.

There will also be a stark choice given to voters, building from the success of the Conservative campaign in undermining Miliband last election. She will ask voters to choose between her stable hand for negotiating Brexit or “chaos” with Corbyn. We should expect a tweet along these lines within the next few days as it will be a key talking point throughout the election campaign.

 

 

 

Tomorrow, I will consider what Corbyn might learn from Miliband’s social media persona construction during the short campaign – and contemplate whether his team has the capabilities, manpower or will to do what is necessary on social media to shift the news agenda to his terms.

How can media academics fight the rise of the right?

Menow2 @bethanyusher

AT the international Celebrity Studies Journal conference in Amsterdam Brexit dominated  conversations with British colleagues as we struggled to come to terms with the rise and increased visibility of the far-right at home.

Most delegates were shocked. “No one on my Facebook on Twitter timeline was voting out”, they said, “I never see any of the stuff about immigration. I honestly vote it would be a Remain landslide.”

The insinuation was clear. The people who voted out are simply not who we, in the Ivory Towers of academia, would associate.

This has been very different to my own experience over the past few years, where I’ve watched far-right rhetoric about immigrants increase on the Facebook pages of people I know.

Shortly after Brexit I wrote about the rise of the right in my hometown Sunderland – the first place to announce for Brexit.

I argued that when Labour stopped speaking for the people of the post-industrial North and seized the neo-liberal middle ground, they left a vacuum into which stepped first the BNP and later UKIP.

They poured poison into a people who felt abandoned and were looking for someone to blame for social and economic insecurity.

As I was due to present an analysis of party leader’s social network accounts during 2015 GE election campaign, I decided to refocus the work to try and make some sense of the Brexit vote, with particular focus on Farage’s successful use of Facebook.

My research explores how the conventions of the news industry – alongside the techniques of online ‘micro celebrities’ and celebrity marketing – have influenced digital electioneering.

Farage and the UKIP team were particularly adept at adapting familiar cultural discourses and images for their own ends, such as this play on the famous ‘Labour Isn’t working’ poster.

 

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On Facebook, Farage won the day, with more people ‘talking about him’ and ‘liking’ his page than Labour, The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and The Green Party combined.

His church, like Facebook users, was broad.  Young and old, from the Northern unemployed to Middle Englanders, shared his messages about the dangers of immigration and the abandonment of ordinary people by the establishment.

Many of their methods, for any one who studies journalism, are all too familiar. In the late 1970s, Stuart Hall discussed attacks on young black Britons by the National Front in 1975 as a direct result of tabloid newspaper’s portrayal of them as muggers and benefit “scroungers”. He concluded that behind the attacks were white fears about the decline of Britain as an economic power and the ‘othering’ of groups by the press.

The similarities between this kind of news discourse and the way Farage and other right-wing groups such as Britain First construct their own content are clear. But rather than it being engaged with once and then cast aside, like a newspaper, it has tentacles which grow as it is shared again and again.

Often framed as a conversation between ‘Me’ and”You’ against the dangerous ‘them’, content created for social media can suddenly reappear after several weeks or months, finding new currency on new timelines.

And the popularity of the far-right on the site can not be ignored. Britain First, Farage and the UKIP’s Facebook pages boast a combined total of more than 2.7 million ‘likes’ – a million more than Cameron and the Conservatives. Farage’s post-brexit video alone racked up 1.45m views in three weeks.

So, the question becomes, what is our role, as educators and researchers, in challenging this rhetoric?

I’d argue that it is a significant –  and it is time for us to focus.

First, we need to understand it better and to do so we must emerge from our social media echo chambers and actively engage with people whose views we might find unpalatable. The limited audience and lofty language of media research means that those who it could benefit most, rarely engage with it.

Secondly, and for post 1992 institutions particularly, we must do more to ensure that young working class people are both politicised and educated during their time with us.

The Miners’ Halls and picket lines of my childhood – where I was politically educated – are gone. Surely we are better placed than the far-right to try and fill these kinds of spaces? I am often surprised that there is so little political debate or demonstration on our campus and know I should do more to help instigate it.

Our students need to understand how both neo-liberal and far right ideologies are constructed, maintained and impact on them. When they do it can be a fulfilling experience for them. On the morning after Brexit I watched with pride as one graduate picked apart Nigel Farage’s statement using ideas discussed in seminars.

She also told a friend who complained that her Facebook was “too political” “that she should “look up Habermas so they could understand was social media was really all about.”

These kinds of discussions on social networks are important because they too can be shared, giving our teaching extended life.

Across England, voting Brexit meant many working class people felt they have a voice and their anger has been focused directly on people they perceive as different.

It’s up to professions like ours to convince them there is another way for them to feel politically empowered. Surely we are capable of being better communicators than the likes of Nigel Farage and Britain First? We have the skills to unpick this rhetoric and we must work harder to do so.

The right are on the rise and we have an important role in the fight back.

 

 

 

The Labour Party may have to take some blame for the referendum result – but it’s not all Corbyn’s fault.

This week my hometown Sunderland achieved world wide infamy when it became the first area to vote ‘Leave’  – and by a much larger margin than expected.

The Parliamentary Labour Party are imploding again and blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the result at the hands of many of their voters.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Jeremy Corbyn poses for a portrait on July 16, 2015 in London, England. Jeremy Bernard Corbyn is a British Labour Party politician and has been a member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983. He is currently a contender for the position as leader of the Labour Party. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

HOPE UNFULFILLED: Motion of No Confidence in Corbyn. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

But while the referendum result may be partially Labour’s fault, it is not just Corbyn who is to blame.

This is the culmination of a 20-year period during which Labour has all but abandoned any attempt to speak for, or to, the working class communities of the North.

I was born into the kind of family who didn’t question that the party acted in our best interests.I called Neil Kinnock and Arthur Skargill, ‘Uncles’ as a child and was raised to believe the party would fight for us forever.

I’ve written before about how difficult life was as a child living in Sunderland during the Thatcher years while her Government ripped apart my community.

It felt like a war. I couldn’t understand why I, from a Northern single parent family, was so hated. It may be akin to the way the children of immigrants feel today.

My first memories are of picket lines that occasionally turned into pitch battles, of bailiffs turning up to take neighbours’ TVs and collecting food for miner’s families, even though we had very little ourselves.

Poverty can be undignified, but we tried to find to retain our humanity within it.

That was largely due to the fact that through it all, we always believed that The Labour Party was fighting for us.

We listened to powerful men in Miner’s Halls and on picket lines, preaching that our time would come, as long as we stood together.

As we moved from rented home to rented home, waiting on the now endless council list, we always believed a better day was on the horizon.

And just after my 17th birthday, we all thought it had arrived. My Mam held me and wept on the day Tony Blair swept to power. I’m still appreciative of some of what his Government achieved. It enabled me to scramble my way out of poverty and into a profession.

Blair1997

A NEW DAWN: Believing the fight was over.

But while I escaped poverty, for many of the people I grew up with, the promises were unfulfilled.

New Labour turned its attention to the interests of the city and forgot the important job of politicising the working classes.

When the Miner’s Halls closed and shipbuilding foreman disappeared, The Labour Party did not fill the political and social gap left behind. They abandoned us and talked instead to big business and for the South.

Into the vacuum stepped first the BNP and then Farage’s UKIP, pouring poison into the ears of the people who felt like the Tory Government had spent 25 years attacking them.

The Tories crippled us and then Labour abandoned us.

People in post-industrial communities felt like they weren’t seen as good enough to be part of the Labour movement. But far-right parties convinced them they were good enough for theirs and set about convincing them that the fight was with other working class people who sounded and looked different.

This week, following the Brexit vote, the grandchildren of the skilled Labour men of the lost North feel empowered for the first time in two generations.

I just feel scared. The EU was a safety net for communities like mine and now it’s gone. Maybe if you’ve grown up in poverty you never feel truly safe, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt as insecure as I do today.

I feel lost between two worlds, both of which I’m furious with.

I’m angry at my childhood community and friends, many of whom voted ‘Leave’ and are celebrating something which I know will make their lives harder.

And I’m angry with The Labour Party, because it helped cause this. Not because Corbyn didn’t speak loud enough, but because for too long it hasn’t spoken to these communities at all.

votelabour

GIVE THEM HOMES AND WORK: The forgotten Labour promise.

So tonight I send this heartfelt message to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Even now you’re too busy cannibalising yourself to acknowledge what abandoning your heartlands caused. If you do not listen, you run the risk of losing these seats to UKIP at the next election and perhaps forever.

Wake up and quickly. Has the loss of Scotland taught you nothing? The North of England is at risk from an entirely different kind of nationalistic party.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge Corbyn is not the person to unify the left. I believe if he thought there was a better candidate to speak for the poorest in our society, he was step aside without this public bloodletting. Finding that person is now the job of you all.

Unification under the banner of the left must happen and you must find a way to communicate again with and for those most disenfranchised by unfettered capitalism.

The far-right are on the rise. Please win back the hearts and minds of the people you were set up to fight for.

Dear Labour, please return to us before it is too late.

votelabour

A NEW, NEW DAWN: Return to us, Labour Party.

 

Broadening the field – how to get more working class kids into journalism

SEVEN years ago I left industry to lead a newly founded journalism course at Teesside University which was managing to keep fewer than half those recruited.

Today that course reached the top ten of The Guardian League tables for journalism.

This matters not only because it is a badge of honour (I’m not going to pretend I’m not thrilled), but because of the opportunity courses like this  offer to young people often excluded from media jobs due to their socio-economic background.

Some of them come from the kind of places that Benefits Street was recently filmed and others from as far afield as London.

The vast majority are state educated and often the biggest barrier we have to overcome is building their confidence. We work on interview and presentation skills a lot.

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

They leave us as digital media professionals who can work across all platforms. And then get jobs – increasingly globally.

Last year we got 60 per cent of graduates into media related jobs within six months, in an area with one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country.

We’ve had grads born and bred in ‘Boro’ working in Australia, America and France.

These young people should be celebrated. Instead there is still snobbery from huge sections of industry regarding courses like ours and whether these graduates are fit for purpose.

A couple of years ago I watched an episode of Celebrity Mastermind which featured Football Focus presenter Dan Walker , who recalled some advice he was given by Des Lynam as a child, in regards to how to become a BBC football journalist.

“He told me to get a good undergraduate degree – not in media, and then do a post-graduate journalism qualification.” Queue nods of agreement from John Humphreys.

This followed a lunch with a friend and BBC correspondent  who said that it was still ‘difficult’ for graduates with first degrees in journalism to get jobs in the organisation.

“We prefer them to have a proper academic degree first,” she said. “And then they should train on the job while doing a post-grad qualification.”

Students working in Teesside University’s news studio

And with that slams the door on working class young people up and down the country. An unfunded post-grad qualification, following an already expensive undergrad degree, is a luxury many can’t afford.

I’m not having a pop at traditional ‘academic degree at a Redbrick/20-week postgraduate course’ route in to journalism just because I lead an undergraduate programme. It’s the way I – and the majority of my colleagues over the years – trained.

But I was also lucky. A kindly editor at my local newspaper gave me some paid shifts to cover the tuition fees of my post-grad course after I graduated. If he hadn’t – like many of the students we teach at Teesside – I would not have been able to afford another course after university to open the magic door to industry. Our courses are NCTJ accredited so students get their professional qualifications as part of their degree programme.

These views also show little understanding of the level and variety of technical and practical skills needed by young reporters attempting to break in to the industry today.

Our students learn how record and edit video and audio for both broadcast and online. They come up with concepts for original news websites, then monetize them; then build them.

They launch their own online publications and come up with interesting and dynamic social media strategies; design and sub-edit news pages; use Photoshop to create interesting and dynamic story illustration; come up with short and long-term policies for search media optimisation; organise participatory campaigns with audience; they news-gather to produce  a website, newspaper, and news programmes for TV and radio for campus.

On top of this they do their professional exams, including learning shorthand to 100 words a minute. They are in classes up to 20 hours per week. It’s great value for money for them and puts the six hours of week lectures I did for my ‘proper academic degree’ to shame.

Finally, this snobbery around undergraduate programmes works on an assumption that academic and practical learning are separate entities.

It infers the training of journalists is primarily about process and that somehow a first degree in an academic subject will automatically foster critical thinking in the workplace.

But how can you teach process and practice without teaching students the cultural significance of their industry and things like how ownership, race, class and gender influence the news agenda?

Studying at university enables them to understand the societal obligations and identify when their publications are not fulfilling them. As Chris Paterson and David Domingo argue in the second volume of Making Online News:

“Journalists to not exist in a vacuum, and a young journalist with little concept of journalistic obligation, of the social context of the field, and of the possibilities, limitations and evolution of the latest forms of journalistic practice, may well do society, and the news organisation, more harm than good.”

In these times of increased media scrutiny  one of the greatest opportunities afforded by longer training courses is space to foster informed ethical practitioners who have a deep understanding of the modern media landscape, how we’ve got here and how we can make it better.

It takes an entire generation of well-trained and dynamic young people to transform the working practices of an industry. For me, that’s what training over three years rather than cramming it in to 20 weeks gives us the opportunity to do.

While – limitations to kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds aside – I have no issue with the traditional red-brick/post grad qualification route into journalism, I am under no illusions that I entered the industry better qualified to work in it than the graduates leaving our undergraduate degree.

I say to our students is that if they engage fully with the opportunities on offer, they can leave the institution with the same level of training and experience I had post my senior journalism qualification which I sat after 18 months in industry.

This is topped by a broad knowledge base of how the industry operates and how it could be improved, which I didn’t really get until I entered the world of academia. Few journalists I know really have the time to investigate how the industry could improve not only in a storytelling sense but also ethically.

Despite this there are still people in industry who wouldn’t even interview them, based on an antiquated sense of how journalists should be trained, which increasingly seems rooted in class snobbery.

It’s time they woke up.

Mail Online’s audience grab and how it changed journalistic practice

Menow2

Bethany Usher

 

Bethany Usher is a principal lecturer at Teesside University and former Fleet Street journalist.

Here she discusses her latest research into how the Mail Online built its audience and its impact on journalistic practice.

 

 

THE five-year anniversary of the relaunch of Mail Online last summer offered a natural time-frame to examine how it became the world’s most visited newspaper website and the impact of this on journalistic practice.

The staggering 690 per cent increase in audience – from just 18.7m visitors a month in May 2008 to 128m in May 2013 – makes it the industry’s biggest current success story. It’s still growing incredibly quickly, with latest figures showing monthly audience approaching 190m.

But according to digital analytics company Comscore, it isn’t news that’s the pull. Mail Online also  holds the top spot  for showbusiness, television, fashion and beauty. This content is all celebrity based and as any visitor can see in seconds, it is a prolific part of the site.

The ‘sidebar of shame’, described as ‘journalism crack’ by Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke and the sheer volume of content – averaging between 500 and 600 stories a day – pulls and then keeps audience. Dwell time is over six minutes per unique user, in an industry where two minutes is considered a pretty good show.

Whether celebrity content can be classed as news is a hotly debated topic in academic circles. There is nothing novel in it being used by a news organisation as a way to attract readers. The celebrity interview, for example, has been a sort over commodity by print media for more than 100 years.

However, maximising the potential of celebrity and journalism in the network has enabled Mail Online to use celebrity content with far greater focus than ever before.

The executive summary of Brand42 – the digital agency commissioned with re-launching the site – describes how Web 2:0 enhanced user experience and supported an increase in volumes of content in an attempt to attract “a younger web savvy audience”.

This had a significant impact on the working practices of journalists. Some were ahead of the curve, but are now familiar parts of online news production. Search Engine Optimisation and social media share becoming a key part of working routines, enabled by the creation of more than 200 “highly optimised” templates.

Studying content on the site reveals a number of trends suggesting greater influences on editorial decision-making and production than those around optimising audience.

Increasingly templatised story production, statistical gathering and how journalists now use celebrity performance as news source, means there are few similarities between these working practices of those producing this kind of content for Mail Online and journalists.

Most significantly in terms of my own research, it reframes the significance of the interview. Interviewing is the traditional life blood of journalism. While studies of journalistic work often describe it as  ‘non-routine’, interviewing is identified as an important part of every day.

Mail Online New York News Room. Source: Forbes.com

Mail Online New York News Room. Source: Forbes.com

Jeremy Tunstall in his seminal study  ‘Journalists at Work’ – found more than half of newsgathering time was spent interviewing people; 25 per cent of the time on face-to-face and 39 per cent on the telephone.

Thinking back to my own time in industry, this feels about right. I remember my first news editor telling me to never to leave an interview until I got ‘every cough and spit’. Later, working at Sunday newspapers, interviews with big buy ups could last several hours. I’d sometimes conduct revisit interviews over subsequent days after a certain line had perked the editor’s interest at conference.

But celebrity content on Mail Online relies very little on direct interaction with sources. Much of it is no more than the repackaging performance in different media spaces. These can include frame-by-frame accounts of the music videos of singers like Katy Perry, a scene from a reality TV show such as The Only Was is Essex or the interaction with fans on social media sites, particularly Twitter.

These are then repackaged, using templates which draw on traditional conventions associated with written journalistic production, such as the inverted pyramid structure and the linguistic devices for direct speech.

Amongst the most popular sources for Mail Online are the stars of a new genre of constructed reality television which emerged around the same time Mail Online launched. The stars of early examples of these shows such as MTV’s The Hills, ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex or E!’s Keeping up with the Kardashians are now examples of networked celebrity as brands and have an incredible ability to sell product. This stems from the fact that selling product seems to be the key purpose of the shows in the first place.

kimsonsamepage

Mail Online:  US Advertising Campaign

To look at the levels of content about the stars of just one of these shows – The US Kardashian family –  shows the vast influence they now have on the Mail Online news agenda. In my five-year study time frame, Mail Online published just under 4,000 stories about the family of which around 30 per cent were directly sourced from their tweets.

Those producing this content don’t directly source their own material through interviews and contacts and think about the best way to use it, but instead aggregate content and place it into a pre-created “highly optimised” template.

This poses a significant question: are the people working on this kind of content for Mail Online journalists?

Mail Online workers are certainly not journalists of a kind that Tunstall would have recognised. Instead they represent a new kind of media worker. We might terms them digital content processors who use the work of others, in this case the performances of celebrity and their interactions with their audience, to generate news lines for them and then repackage it in a way which will optimise audience.

These digital content processors clearly work alongside journalists operating in a more traditional way. Lead stories on Mail Online are usually the ones that have made the paper and many appear to be produced by journalists using sources and interviewing. But there are a number of distinctions can be seen when comparing to the practices of traditional journalists.

They place speed over accuracy, with stories up quickly and then amended or corrected later. This process is recorded under the by-line at the top of each post, which highlights updates. Quantity is valued over quality, with multiple lowbrow and low researched stories produced in a day.

These workers are also not traditional news gatherers, but news aggregators, pulling together online content – in this case the networked performance of the celebrity as brands – to produce stories given the appearance of news. As such they can churn out prolific amounts very cheaply, which keeps pulling audience to the site.

The importance of cost comes into clear focus when you examine the revenue and profit  – or lack thereof – of Mail Online itself. Despite attracting huge audiences through their cheaply produced celebrity focused content it still isn’t making any money.

The indications that revenue will follow audience are improving, with parent company Daily Mail and General Trust announcing growth in digital revenue is now offsetting print decline and that the site broke even for the first time in 2012. The site also achieved a 41 per cent increase year-on-year revenue to £41m by September last year. However, this is still only a miniscule part (less than 0.5%) of the £1.8bn generated by the company in 2013.

The quest for advertising revenues has resulted in Mail Online finding another use for this celebrity content. Once it has captured audience, it now tries to sell product directly to them.

A story constructed around a celebrity’s tweet about a new make up line or a paparazzi picture of them going to the gym, often now offers the reader the opportunity to buy the clothes they wear. This has led to Mail Online setting up their own ‘Fashion Store’, built entirely around coverage of celebrity.

It’s advertorial in news’ clothing. Which makes the term digital content processor an even more compelling job descriptor for those producing it.

This research is part of a wider examination into the changing significance of the journalistic interview, particularly to the formulation of celebrity culture. Bethany Usher’s study into the performance of David Bowie in interviews is published in David Bowie: Critical Issues by Routledge later this year.

Follow @bethanyusher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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