Communications in the age of digital elections

by | Nov 8, 2019

Recent elections in the US and the UK have yielded more questions than answers about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to messages and tactics designed to persuade audiences. Targeted political adverts, unofficial memes, psychographic profiling and giant datasets will all be in play during upcoming elections on both sides of the pond with tech platforms increasingly providing the battlefield for mass communications combat.

Over the last two years I’ve been exploring how technology will affect politics in the near-future through my podcast Government Vs The Robots. In that time I’ve spotted five shifts in the information ecosystem which demand a response from people interested in communicating ideas and values. The current UK election and the democratic primaries will provide a chance to scrutinise what the best political campaigners in the business think is the right way to win hearts and minds in the age of the algorithm. So what should we be looking for?


Today’s voters each have a completely unique flow of information into their laptops and smartphones. The information we consume is based on the choices we make and algorithmic interpretations of those choices which drive us deeper into our filter bubbles. It’s easier than ever before to find like-minded communities brought together by niche interests. This is reflected in the rise of identity politics and call out culture. How candidates seek to set different groups against each other and win the backing of others will be a significant part of their strategies.  

Contested Realities

Facts have been established as secondary to emotions when it comes to forming political opinions. People have always held up competing versions of events as truths which inform their political judgements but at the warp speed of social media, ownership of the facts is less important than plausibility of narrative. Watch out for the short-lived vacuums after live events and breaking news where various ‘outriders’ and opinion formers are not yet in receipt of the party line. These will most likely occur after nocturnal presidential tweeting, outspoken left-wing candidate gaffes and episodes of Boris Johnson bluster or buffoonery. 

In addition it is now easier than ever to manipulate digital media and harder than ever to spot something which is fake. Where people unknowingly consume fake memes or they travel across mainstream media before being debunked there is a risk that debate becomes warped. Initiatives like Who Targets Me or Sky News’ Under the Radar are good ways of monitoring these. 


The advent of ‘live’ channels on social media has precipitated an increasing amount of content from politicians that is broadcast straight to social. Just a few weeks ago the UK Prime Minister held a people’s Question Time where he pre-recorded a question and answer session and streamed it on Facebook. The Brexit Party also has its own online TV channel. These channels present a challenge to media covering elections who risk losing their role as interlocutor but by watching how it’s done there’s plenty for communicators to learn from.

The proliferation of data

In the era of GDPR (and the wake of Cambridge Analytica) many voters are much more savvy about who has their email address but there’s still much lower understanding of the role that consumption and location data can play in targeting voters. Expect to see evidence of highly targeted adverts (by geography, social class and gender to name a few) and increasingly quizzical eyebrows raised by an electorate not always aware of exactly what data they may have  signed away and to who. For people committed to raising awareness of consumer consent and the future of data ethics this is an important one to watch.

Post-text content

Whilst smartphones form the backbone of our media consumption there’s an increasingly vibrant scene of podcasters and You Tubers providing independent commentary on the election. Some of the best analysis could well come from these audiovisual pundits operating outside of mainstream media. Expect to see savvy politicians courting cult shows and maybe even producing their own materials to tap into a technological trend which is steering us away from screens and towards accessories.

It will take a braver or more confident person than me to predict the outcome of the next 12 months electoral politics but i’m already certain there’s going to be lots to learn for communicators. This blog doesn’t even touch on the role of foreign states in creating and fostering disinformation designed to influence opinion. Perhaps that’s one for another day. 


  • Jonathan Tanner is a consultant working with organisations to navigate digital society. His podcast Government Vs The Robots explores how politics will affect technology in the future. His clients have included global think tank the Overseas Development Institute, online ad transparency campaigners Who Targets Me, cross-party political movement More United, creative communicators Unfold Stories, and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Before all that, he was Communications Director at Crown Agents. 

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