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When Social Media Meets Politics

The UK General Election in December 2019 saw the Labour Party’s worst result since 1935. When the exit poll figures were revealed, I’m sure even the most die-hard of Conservative supporters were a little shocked at just how great the gains were.


In the run up to the result, numerous news outlets including the IndependentMetro and The Telegraph spoke of how Labour were closing the gap, due in no small part — it was believed — to their savviness with social media. 

A cartoon image combining a video player interface with a grayscale photo of Boris Johnson's head on a cartoon body. Surrounding the video are colourful speech bubbles with phrases like "Cats are better than dogs!", "What? No way!", and "Did he say that?" against a pale background.

Just one day before Britain went to the polls, The Spectator published an article entitled: “Like, actually: Labour’s social media lead should terrify the Tories.” Noting how the public sphere has been revolutionised by the shift from newspapers to television to the Internet, it stated:

"The evidence is clear: the Conservatives may be ahead in the opinion polls, but they lag behind on social media in a way that should terrify any Tory confidently looking forward to winning a parliamentary majority."

Research analysing political party performance on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram led author Niall Ferguson (Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford) and his co-writers to conclude:

"If it were still 1979, Johnson’s skills as a newspaper columnist and television personality probably would ensure him a majority against a Trotskyist Labour leader whom the press hates and Andrew Neil humiliated.

"But forty years have passed. And that is a very long time in politics — long enough for a transformation of the public sphere to change the game in favour of a leader who is short of charisma, but surprisingly good at generating followers and engagement online."

How wrong they were.

Whilst the authors will seemingly be ecstatic at the actual result (“we would rather be wrong and relieved than right and contemplating the horrific possibility of a Corbyn minority government in the early hours of Friday morning…”), interesting questions remain as to why Labour’s social media campaign was ever deemed so dangerous to the Tories in the first place? What made it appear so effective, and why did online momentum fail to materialise when it mattered? 


One theory is the Echo Chamber Effect, defined as:

"A metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system."

For instance, if several of your friends on Facebook are Labour supporters and engage with their posts, those posts are then more likely to appear on your feed. If you then engage with it too, an algorithm will kick in to show you more of what you like, without being exposed to the policies and messages of competing parties. Our bias increases and we don’t even know it.

But how then do the findings of Ferguson et al. come into play, when they are clearly anti-Corbyn and presumably immune to the Echo Chamber Effect? Labour’s cut-through had to be greater than existing followers and fans for the article to have been written in the first place. 

On 11th December — less than 48 hours before the party’s fate was sealed — Labour issued a press release claiming:


"Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have run the most successful election campaign the country has ever seen. Jeremy Corbyn’s digital strategy centres around making viral persuasive content — bypassing the media and breaking out of the bubble… On Facebook Jeremy Corbyn and Labour achieved 86.2 million views on campaign videos, compared with only 24.5 million views for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives."

That explains it then. The sheer volume of views for Labour content had Tory supporters momentarily worried. 

Whilst I hate to say it, Labour’s press release echoes of a Social Media team trying to quantify their worth at the weekly team meeting…

Social Media Manager: “Sales were low, but engagement rates were through the roof! We saw an x% week-on-week uplift in view rates, and the highest click-through rates of the quarter!”

Everyone else: “But sales were low?”

Social Media Manager: “Well, yes [mutters] virtually non-existent… BUT look at this graph showing our increase in reach amongst the 25-35 demographic, and the subsequent spike in Facebook likes! This campaign has been our most successful one yet. Doughnuts are on me!”

If the recent rise of influencer marketing has taught us anything, it is that views and engagement rates aren’t always what they seem. Of course, reach is hugely important — especially when trying to land important messages about political policies — but it doesn’t mean that the message will resonate with everyone who sees it, nor does it infer that those targeted will go on to buy the goods (or, in this case, vote for Labour).

That said, even a crushing election defeat cannot detract from the positives of social media when it is used fairly. The prevalence of platforms such as Twitter in politics has made both candidates and elected officials more accountable than ever before, affording voters access to those in power like no other time in our history. 

A cartoon image of Earth surrounded by images of talking heads, documents and graphs.

Corbyn may have failed in his quest to acquire the keys to Number 10, but he did manage to appeal to the youngest members of our society more than the other parties combined. A whopping 56% of 18-24 year olds surveyed by YouGov voted Labour, with 54% of 25-29 year olds and 46% of 30-39 year olds following suit. By contrast, a mere 14% of those aged 70 and over voted for Labour, with 67% voting Conservative. I, for one, am very intrigued to see how the country will vote in five years’ time, given Labour’s dominance amongst the younger demographics. 

I’m a big advocate for social media when it’s used for the right reasons. A single tweet from British rapper, Stormzy, to his 1.3 million followers contributed to a 236 per cent spike in voter registrations. That’s no mean feat. Fighting apathy and advocating for the youth of today to exercise their democratic right to vote — for any party — is an admirable use of the platform. Something that the Conservative Party could certainly learn a thing or two from…

Their tactics this time around played heavily on preempting the responses of a broadly left-wing Twitter user base. Posting “Make no mistake” alongside an image of “Get Berxit Done” feels like one of Baldrick’s cunning plans — and it worked. Left-leaning users lambasted the party and their social media team, ridiculing their inability to spell — all while unwittingly falling into the Tory trap of making their “typo” trend. You want free exposure and organic engagement, Boris? Sure, we’ll make Berxit happen.

Trickery provoked an even fiercer reaction when the Conservatives rebranded their Twitter account to @factcheckUK from their usual @CCHQPress during the televised ITV debate. You’d expect such a blatant ruse to mislead the voting public would have severe ramifications. Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority says otherwise, but that doesn’t make it right.  


The sad thing is, such foul-play is the tip of the iceberg where the misuse of social media is concerned. In much the same way that our daily newspapers are biased, social media is distorted, data is mined and everyday folk like you and me are duped. 

You only need glance at the controversies surrounding the EU referendum and US presidential elections to see the glaring injustices at play: how voters have been misinformed, lied to and manipulated by the parties with the largest purses (or the least morals...)

Thankfully, measures are being put in place to protect the public from such unscrupulous practices.

On 19th October, 2017, a bill was proposed in response to the investigation regarding Russia’s purchase of political ads during the 2016 US presidential election. Since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 was passed, political adverts that appear on television, in news print and on the radio need to disclose who has paid for them. This was not the case with online ads. The Honest Ads Act sought to close this loophole by increasing transparency, amending the 1971 law to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure ads are not purchased “directly or indirectly” by foreign countries whilst also requiring companies to disclose how advertisements were targeted.

As things stand, we now live in a world where social media is a force to be reckoned with, and a decidedly under-regulated one at that. Until “the rules” of social media are fully defined and reliably enforced, we can’t be surprised when people in power choose to bend and break them. For now, we just need to trust our gut instincts and not believe everything we read. What a thoroughly modern way of approaching important life-changing decisions… 


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