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Politics & Law Series: General Election

Storytelling strikes back: The First Truly “Social” Election

How the increasing use of social media will affect the UK General Election 2015

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

By Dr Tom van Laer, Storytelling Scholar and Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Cass Business School

Why is this being billed as the first truly “social” election?

Two centuries ago, the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe played an important role in galvanizing public opinion against slavery. Storytelling has always played a significant role in helping Tom Van Laerpeople, not least the electorate, to view issues from a different perspective. However, in the past 163 years, this communication was mostly one-sided – the stories were dictated by the political party to the voter.

Today, the techniques of storytelling are rapidly becoming more nuanced as voters get to influence the story that is being delivered to them. Social media enables the public to become part of the conversation and this is one of the reasons why political communication has become increasingly symmetric – practitioners have begun to rely on, and in some cases dread, the millions of internet users who regularly update their profile pages on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. Whether in the form of blogs or profile pages, they share written stories, photos and videos about themselves, their experiences and their opinions. These stories have the power to change the behaviour of others - this influence is something that politicians and their campaign teams are now trying to leverage.

How does social media persuade?

A fancy term for persuasion by stories is narrative persuasion. The phenomenon of narrative transportation, or mentally entering a world that a story evokes, plays a crucial role in narrative persuasion. In 2014, I published research which looked at more than 21,000 readers – I found that those who find reading entertaining are often changed by their reading experience. This builds to such an extent that readers who become engrossed in a story tend to accept that story to be true. They also accept the beliefs and behaviours that the characters exhibit as being good. If people do not lose themselves in the story (meaning they are not transported), they respond negatively to the story or the characters and dismiss the narrative as nonsense.

To exert such effects in political campaigns, narrative transportation first requires that voters process the stories. These stories can be conveyed by various media, including novels, movies, soap operas, but also through social media channels, such as Twitter.

Although politicians are the bad guys in many stories, you could transport them into a positive light using narrative persuasion
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Second, voters get transported through two main components: empathy for the main character and imagery of the events. Empathy implies, for instance, that voters develop positive feelings toward Ed Miliband and experience a connection with Mr Miliband’s values and his fate. Imagery means, for instance, that voters generate vivid images of the battle between David Cameron and Mr Miliband, such that they feel as though they are experiencing the battle themselves.

Third, when transported, voters lose track of reality in a physiological sense. The effect of transportation is narrative persuasion.

Is it possible to transport voters into negative stories?

Russell Brand often posts stories about how politicians do not pay enough attention to voters. In such a story, the voter is the main character and the politician is the bad guy. Naturally, politicians are not easily transported into such a story. Instead, their first reaction is to dispute the story and claim to indeed be oriented towards the voter.

In 2013, I wondered whether it might be possible to help people become transported by focusing their attention in the story on the voter interest. You can redirect people’s focus by priming them with words. I took a dozen words, including compassion, moved, soft-hearted, sympathy, tender, and warm, and asked a group of people to find these words in a word search puzzle. Next, they were presented with a story about a negative experience of a character, along with the question of who was at fault. While people without the word search puzzle laid the blame and responsibility entirely with the character, following their completion of the puzzle, people tended to see themselves as more at fault. From my research, it appears that although politicians are the bad guys in many stories, you could transport them into a positive light using narrative persuasion.

How should parties respond to these stories?

Parties are used to argue their case. If you send in a complaint, you get an explanation in return. But if there is one thing complaining voters do not want to hear, it is a dry list of facts. Voters who vent their emotions on the internet want those emotions to be accepted. They want emotional relief. Therefore, parties should always begin with an apology and then try to tell the story from their perspective. Whether a party is at fault or not, you can always apologize for what the voter is going through. This works better when this story is told by someone other than the party leader. Voters can find a response from the very top cheap. They know those individuals are trained to present statements and arguments, whereas a local representative—the real service employees—is a more relatable average Joe or Jane who is in direct contact with the voters. If you let those politicians present stories from their perspective, they will be able to put a human face on it. Social media is all about people sharing their stories – to be successful at engaging with it, politicians must embrace that from the start.

Follow Dr Tom Van Laer on Twitter @tvanlaer.

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