The U.K. Government is Turning Boris Johnson into an Influencer

10 Downing Street has realized people don’t watch the news anymore — but will the Tories’ foray onto Facebook Live work?

Tom Barton
Aug 14, 2019 · 5 min read
Composite: Wikimedia Commons/Facebook, compiled by Chris Stokel-Walker

It wasn’t the normal opening to a vlog. “Good afternoon,” said the U.K. Prime Minister on August 14th as he gazed, slightly awkwardly, down the barrel of the camera. “I’m speaking to you live from my desk in Downing Street.” Behind him, carefully placed in the background, was a Union flag and a model of a red London bus.

With MPs away on their summer break, Boris Johnson was opening up the weekly ritual of Prime Minister Questions — where he faces Members of Parliament in the bear-pit of the House of Commons — to the public. Johnson was taking questions, as he put it, “unpasteurised, unmediated”.

In fact, the questions were very much pasteurised and mediated.

Passed to him by his political advisors using the iPad on his desk, this certainly wasn’t political hardball. But those involved in putting the event together insist the Prime Minister didn’t have sight of any of the questions in advance.

A charismatic performer, best known before the 2016 Brexit referendum as an occasional host of the satirical BBC TV show Have I Got News For You, Johnson’s team wanted to tap into his natural spontaneity rather than risk a stilted, scripted performance. But they did filter they questions he saw. Unsurprisingly, none of them strayed far from his political comfort zone.

The question some viewers might be asking is what — given the often-stuffy world of Westminster politics — is the new leader’s team up to?

After a Conservative leadership campaign in which social media barely figured, and during which Mr Johnson himself admitted that his team had “restrained” his use of social media, Number 10 is changing its game.

All generations increasingly get their news from social media. A quarter of Brits get news on Facebook, and one in 10 from YouTube, according to data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The use of social media as a news source has doubled in the last seven years, at the same time as TV news has dropped by 10%.

Boris Johnson’s advisors are pleased with how yesterday’s event went. And they’re also proud that it was produced in-house, without the support of a costly social media agency.

But they admit they are experimenting.

Their first attempt at a Facebook Live, last Thursday, was a curious affair: a two-minute, apparently scripted, statement, Johnson sat at his Downing Street desk, with no attempt at — or suggestion of — audience interaction.

Yesterday’s event was, they say, their second test of the format, with the implication that more are to follow.

Number 10’s strategy, insofar as it’s constantly evolving, is to put Boris Johnson front-and-centre of everything they do. And they see online video — and live streams in particular — as a way of doing that. But those who study the space question how effective this experiment might be.

“This is probably a wasted effort at best and an unwise move politically speaking at worst,” reckons Steven Buckley, associate lecturer at the University of the West of England, who studies the intersection between politics, news and social media — particularly YouTube. “His first Facebook PMQs has the look of a teen from 2012 vlogging in their bed — a fancy one I’ll grant you.

“Whilst they are trying to maintain authenticity — the key element of most successful social media these days — the fact that the questions are handpicked by those that know him well mean that he will not be challenged in any significant way that the public would expect from an interview in more traditional settings such as Newsnight.”

The President of Indonesia is among the top 10,000 most popular YouTubers in the world

Will Jennings, professor of political science at the University of Southampton, agrees that events like this provide a way for politicians to “bypass traditional ‘gatekeepers’ like broadcasters and newspapers to speak directly to voters. Politicians may be attracted to live events on new social media platforms because they believe they can control the exchange more than traditional formats like Q&As with journalists.”

But, he warns, “make no mistake: traditional broadcast media remains the dominant source of news for most people, and will remain so for some time as audiences are often fragmented across social media platforms.”

Officials agree, and insist that rather than trying to replace or bypass traditional broadcast media, the social media experiments are in addition to more standard TV bulletins.

But they also acknowledge that audiences are getting their news in different places, and recognise that politicians need to move with them.

Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, is a moderately successful YouTuber, with some clips of him gladhanding foreign leaders racking up hundreds of thousands of views. Jokowi, as he’s called, is among the top 10,000 most popular YouTubers in the world.

Social media is where people consume news now. “It seems inevitable that Number 10 will look to adapt its communications strategy to the changing form of media, just as its predecessors have before with the emergence of radio, television and internet,” explains Jennings.

But Buckley disagrees that the experiment with Facebook Live is likely to be an effective strategy — particularly in extending his reach with younger generations. “His team want to put him in front of the public, but Facebook is not the public,” he says.

“It’s a particular demographic that relies on Facebook for its political news and that is old people. These videos seem more like an exercise in preaching to the choir rather than genuinely trying to reach out to people who are otherwise unconvinced of Boris and his policies.”

He says that if Chloe Westley, Johnson’s head of social media, really wants to take the experiment to the next level she should create a channel on Twitch and get the Prime Minister to take questions live from the chat there.


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