Digi-Rishi, FB ads, 'Dark' Money & The Legacy of Rush Limbaugh
Welcome to Influencing UK, breaking down the latest in digital strategy and campaigns in UK politics. Every two to three weeks I’ll look at how politicians, political parties, and campaigns are - or in many cases aren’t - deploying innovative digital campaign strategies to drive narratives and influence voters, supporters, or customers.
I hope you find it informative. If you don’t already:
Ever since he burst onto the national stage, lobby journalists and Twitter commentators have been obsessed with ‘Brand Rishi”, often awestruck by his team’s ability to produce rudimentary templated Canva cards right through to his latest foray into video.
Before, during, and after the Budget this week, his team fired off a series of graphics, digital briefings, and messages. This slick operation follows the launch of his ‘No 11’ newsletter in recent weeks, which looks more like a data building operation…
Sir Keir Starmer himself was quick to ridicule the Chancellor’s approach responding to the Budget by quipping that he was “sure this [spending plan] will look better on Instagram” and that Sunak's “film crew will struggle to put a positive spin on this”.
I’m not so sure the Labour leader’s jibes will look that smart in the years to come, especially when Labour’s digital strategy seems to be missing in action… Sunak is still comfortably the most popular politician in Britain.
Facebook political ads are back!
In news that will surprise very few keen observers, Facebook has lifted its ban on US political ads ending a moratorium that had been in place since the November elections. The move reopens the door to ads on Facebook by political campaigns as well as ‘issue’ advertisers - a relief to many corporates. Facebook has indicated there will be changes to its policies on political advertising but substantial changes seem unlikely in the short term.
It’s received wisdom amongst the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic that political ads are dangerous for democracy. But a growing number of ‘progressive’ campaigners are warning of the dangers of an outright ban. I’d recommend reading this piece by Democrat Digital Strategist, Tara McGowan, who lays out the case against a permanent ban.
Right-wing parties/politicians benefiting from a conservative media ecosphere
Incumbent politicians/governments have a structural organic advantage online
Campaign/advocacy groups using Facebook to raise funds for campaign activity
WHO FUNDS YOU?!
Earlier this month, The Mirror ran an article on an “ex-Tory intern” called Jennifer Powers who had spent “£65,000 on anti-Corbyn attack ads”. Under the guise of a campaign group called 'Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own', Ms Powers published dozens of Facebook ads claiming Mr Corbyn wanted to "attack property rights in the UK".
There have been increasing concerns in recent years over ‘dark money’ being spent through Facebook campaigns. During the 2019 General Election, a series of obscure and short-lived campaign groups ran adverts to varying degrees of success. Ms Powers’ specific campaign placed 65 adverts on the platform in November and December 2019. Some of the ads were seen by as many as 700,000 people across Facebook and Instagram.
Leaving aside how effective this particular campaign was, as someone who takes a keen interest in electoral law and spending rules in the UK, I remain surprised by the lack of ‘dark’ money in British politics and the dearth of groups set up as third-party campaigners with implicit political aims. Especially when crowdfunding is such a viable option for left-wing groups.
Perhaps the reticence to harness new tactics and vehicles to shape the debate and try to win elections is due to a perception that such an approach is ethically questionable. It’s naive. Technological change is driving change in how politics is done and creating new opportunities to influence and persuade, meet the moment or give your political opponents a head start.
Whenever I put this newsletter out I’m going to run a few regular features, this will include the best new political ads, a tracker of who is spending the most on FB ‘issue’ ads in the UK and on what, and a spotlight on a small campaign. I'll also post a link to a podcast and article that I think merits your eyes and ears.
Best new ad: Patriotism vs Q-Anon
“Her twisted conspiracy theories might have made her famous, but they haven’t done a damn thing to help the people here in our district.” Meet Marcus Flowers a military veteran who plans to defeat the Q-Anon conspiracy theorist, Marjorie Taylor Greene when he runs for Congress in 2022. What. A. Launch. Video. Great visuals and styling whilst hitting all his key messages. Give it a watch:
The top spenders on ‘issue’ ads is dominated by the third sector who uses the platform as a major source of fundraising but also to ‘acquire’ supporters.
Notably, the UK government continues to funnel more resource into Facebook campaigns, spending between £45-50K on the Government’s “Plan for Jobs” ads - see below - which have created over a million impressions online. Facebook’s advertising library gives scant detail on the targeting strategy but the ad appears to be focused primarily at those aged between 25-44. Take a look…
Here are the biggest 'issue' ad spenders in the UK (February), you’ll see how spending is dominated by the third sector and governments:
Small budget, big impact
In each edition of Influencing UK, I’ll be taking a closer look at a smaller budget campaign that’s using smart engagement tactics to draw attention to a particular advocacy issue. This week, I'm profiling Long Live The Local! Have you come across it? If not, it is a campaign backed by a broad alliance of pubs, brewers, and industry bodies who together form Britain’s Beer Alliance.
They use digital tactics to supplement their lobbying activity to push for a cut / a freeze in beer duty. And they are pretty good at it. Since 2018 the campaign has driven 500,000 signatures and 285,000 emails to local MPs. Using a digital-first strategy to build grassroots pressure on the government and raising the salience of the issue constituency-by-constituency. They had another win this week with the Chancellor announcing Beer Duty would be frozen for the third consecutive year.
What I’ve been reading:
David Shor is the smartest political analyst in the world right now (IMHO). His clear focus on data - and his ability to tell uncomfortable electoral truths - have marked him out for criticism from those on the left who clearly find his evidence-based analysis uncomfortable. Anyway, you should read his latest interview in New York Magazine on Why Trump Was Good for the GOP and How Dems Can Win in 2022.
His central thesis is that Trump didn’t exceed expectations by inspiring higher-than-anticipated Republican turnout in 2020. He exceeded them mostly through persuasion. Making particular strides with Hispanic voters. Shor’s view is that the increased salience of socialism in 2020 — with the rise of AOC and the prominence of anti-socialist messaging from the GOP - had something to do with the swing to the GOP particularly amongst Colombian and Venezuelan voters, where socialism is associated with FARC paramilitaries in Colombia and the chaos experienced with President Maduro in Venezuela. You’ll feel smarter for having read it.
As an aside, there is a huge gap in British politics for this level of quality analysis…
What I’ve been listening to:
I’m sure most of you listen to ‘The Daily’ the New York Times’ blockbuster podcast which registers two million downloads a show, hosted by the inimitable Michael Barbaro. One episode, in particular, caught my attention last week: The Legacy of Rush Limbaugh.
Mr. Limbaugh helped create an entire ecosystem of right-wing media and in doing so changed the course of American conservatism (and the American Republic). He was also an incredibly skilled broadcaster, this short retrospective of his life and political legacy is well worth your time.
I think Conservatives and those on the radical right, consciously or not, have understood Gramscian ideas of hegemony and the role that mass media and communication have in shaping and influencing ideas and ‘knowledge’ - certainly to a greater degree than liberals or social democrats in recent decades.
In the UK the far-left have successfully built their own new media platforms in recent years whether through the likes of Novara Media or more recently Double Down News - which now has 275,000 likes on Facebook and 25,000 subscribers. Like them or loathe them, these sites will undoubtedly form a key part of Labour internal politics for years to come…
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!