Politics

UK election 2019: when it comes to social media, might the Tories beat Labour at their own game?

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Written by: Alec Charles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Winchester

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Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected popularity in the 2017 UK general election seemed closely related to a surge in Labour’s youth vote which has often been attributed to a set of social media strategies. Labour deliberately set out to exploit young people’s engagement online by eschewing glossy and overtly managed advertising in favour of the “organic” promotion of user-generated content.

These were emotive and often satirical materials created by grassroots youth supporters which appealed to grassroots youth audiences. And they worked: that year, 64% of young adults sourced most of their news online – and the same proportion voted Labour in 2017’s general election.

At the time of the 2017 election, the Labour leader’s Facebook page had 1.15m likes compared to Conservative leader Theresa May’s 420,000. Jeremy Corbyn also trumped May on Twitter with 1.17m followers compared to May’s 346,000.

But two years later, just two days into the 2019 election campaign, the Conservatives appeared to be narrowing the social media gap. Displaying a celebrity appeal rather broader than his predecssor’s, Boris Johnson had 761,000 followers on Facebook with Jeremy Corbyn on 1.5m. In 2017, Theresa May had 36% of Corbyn’s number of likes on Facebook; today, Johnson has more than 50%. The Conservative Party has 690,000 likes while Labour has a million.

While the “Facebook event” “Vote Labour for real change Thursday 12 December” had 2,600 people saying they would “attend” and 1,000 saying they were interested, the Convervative Party’s offering “Back Boris on Dec 12 to get Brexit done” had 3,500 going and 3,300 interested. This would suggest a significant shift in favour of the Tories since 2017.

But, a week into the campaign, Labour had overtaken the Tories with 6,100 going and 2,700 interested, while the Conservatives had just 3,500 going and 3,400 interested.

The Conservative Party has been making inroads into Labour’s dominance of Twitter.
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Those numbers are not of course massive (that same day, for example, Marwell Zoo in Hampshire had 6,900 people interested in attending its Christmas event) but the scale of the shift back towards Labour may be indicative of the direction of travel in the social media war. The Liberal Democrats’ Facebook page that day said they did “not have any upcoming events”.

Gifs and gaffes

On Twitter, Labour’s lead has narrowed. Since 2017, Theresa May has now nearly tripled her Twitter following to 916,000. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn nearly doubled his number of Twitter followers between 2017 and 2019 to 2.1m, while Boris Johnson had or has? 1.2m. Two days into the campaign, the Conservatives had 432,600 followers on Twitter. Their campaign launch tweet had 3,300 likes. The Labour Party had 740,500 followers, with their campaign launch tweet on 5,500 likes.

Political parties remain very focused on Facebook for their online advertising strategies, with Labour – no doubt attracted by the platform’s audience-targeting algorithms – spending £35,000 on Facebook ads the week before the campaign. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were accused of using public funds to finance targeted Facebook advertisements promoting the extent of government spending in key marginal constituencies.

The Conservatives’ carefully-managed Facebook promotions could not, however, divert attention from some of their candidates’ less salubrious historical posts – including their Gower candidate’s declaration that benefits claimants deserved “putting down” and their Wakefield candidate’s suggestion that former Libyan dictator Colonel Muhammar Gaddafi “should surely have fled to Bradford” to evade capture.

Indeed, the Tories’ own post of a doctored interview with the shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer – which they shared on both Facebook and Twitter – did little to turn the tide of online opinion in their direction.

Catching them young

But if the younger demographic is key to electoral success, the relevance of Facebook or Twitter (which appeal to broader age ranges) may be questionable. It may be that Instagram – two-thirds of whose UK users are under 35 – is a better place to target votes.

One week into the campaign, Labour boasted 93,600 followers compared with the Conservatives’ 80,100. Here, on this key youth-focused platform, the parties’ social media gap clearly seems to be narrowing.

Ofcom reported in 2019 that the entertainment platform most watched by the UK’s young adults is now YouTube (at an average of 73 minutes a day). Its status as young adults’ “go-to site” underlines its potential political impact. Labour posted a YouTube video of its campaign launch on November 6 which attracted 1,200 views in 48 hours, reaching 2,100 within a week.

By comparison, the Conservatives’ campaign launch attracted 5,500 views in its first 24 hours, rising to 6,700 in its first week. As the campaign began, the Tories had 38,000 YouTube subscribers, Labour 30,000. Extinction Rebellion had 49,000.

The shifts in popularity witnessed on YouTube may not necessarily (or eventually) prove to be in favour of established political parties.

A YouTube search for “UK election 2019” directs users first to reports from professional news organisations, as well as a spectacularly patronising video posted by the BBC on November 7 called “The voting system explained”. That post had more than 13,000 views in its first 24 hours. The world’s most-watched YouTuber, PewDiePie, posted a video about Pepe the Frog on the same day which was viewed more than 2.5m times in its first 12 hours.

Amateur guerillas

Meanwhile, much youth political activity and engagement continues – as it did two years ago – to take place at the level of the amateur guerrilla campaign. This was Labour’s great advantage in 2017, and it may remain so today. Such grassroots protest memes as #FCKBORIS do not require managed channels but draw user-generated content and dialogues to their hashtags (whose traffic far exceeds the 4,500 followers on that movement’s Twitter page).

Posted in July 2019, the profoundly unflattering “Boris Bop” video, for example, gained more than a million views in its first four months on YouTube, as it portrayed an animated version of the prime minister rapping xenophobic slurs to a Stormzy beat.

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But YouTube has a long way to go if it is to engage its youth audiences in serious political dialogues. This will necessarily take the form of a bottom-up process, rather than one imposed by an ageing generation of Baby Boomers.

As the 2019 campaign began, the British government’s extraordinarily out-of-touch YouTube video encouraging people to register to vote (first posted in 2014) featured frumpy graphics and was fronted by the middle-aged product manager of the registration website.




Read more:
UK election 2019: how the growing reach of alt-media is shaping the campaign


The politicisation of that platform will start not with government or party initiatives but at the grassroots. It remains to be seen whether that’s a direction that YouTube’s influencers and their followers will seek to take.


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Alec Charles does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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