Over the years, social media platforms have rapidly grown asa sphere for political activism due to its wide outreach.
Sharing ofinformation and news available across the social media networking sites invarious ways is now turning into a vital strategy for the political leaders andparties to campaign (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017). Politicalleaders across the world have begun using Twitter, Facebook and other socialnetworking sites as a medium for political communication and marketing duringelection campaigns. The political parties try to increase the reach of theirelection campaign by channelling their message through the young audiences’personal networks (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017). The leaders are ableto gain support either through direct interaction with the individuals orthrough messages that are shared within their connected social circle (Bright et al., 2017) This study talks about the extent to which Twitter and othersocial media networking sites played a decisive role in the recently held twoelections in United Kingdom in relatively quick succession in 2015 and 2017. Itwill also assess how much did these platforms influence the political parties’strategy during the campaigning. Twitter and 2015 UKGeneral ElectionThe social media has been a part of the Britain’s electoralscenario for a while since the 2015 general elections. With Twitter being awell-established social media tool in UK, Segesten and Bossetta (2017) notesthat the UK became the second largest country after United States following theBritish Twittersphere having an estimated 14.
8 million accounts in 2015. The 2015 general elections which was influenced by thesocial media for the first time saw Twitter being dominated by left-wing Labourparty with 58,000 uses of #votelabour as compared to centre-right Conservatives25,000 uses of #voteconservative (Bartlett and Jones, 2015). Other partiesincluding UK Independent Party had 15,000 mentions with #voteukip and 27,000#votesnp for SNP (Bartlett and Jones, 2015)Margetts (2017) highlights that while the electoral successof the Conservatives was attributed to the giant expenditure of £1.
2 million onthe negative Facebook advertising targeted at Labour candidate Ed Miliband, itwas the Labour’s “bottom-up” campaign on Twitter which drew the attention ofthe users. The Twitter campaign accounts of all the 8 political partiesand leaders had produced a total of 22,397 tweets throughout the elections(Jensen, 2016) but of those about 13% of tweets were informative whilegenerating only 2 % of mobilizing content (Segesten and Bossetta, 2017). Eventhough the Labour and Conservatives tried to drive voter engagement, themobilizing messages by them lacked as against the UK Independent Party (UKIP)and Scottish National Party (SNP), who tweeted number of times a day targetingspecific constituencies (Segesten and Bossetta, 2017)As (Lewis, 2015) notes that most of thepoliticians and their party used the social media platform as a digitalmarketing tool without interacting with the voters personally. Even the contentposted on Twitter and Facebook appeared to prove the loyalty of the partyrather than drawing the attention of the new potential voters. 2017 UK GeneralElection: The “first-social media” election The GE 2015 had the potential to be the first social mediaelection (Reuters, 2015) but the 2017 UK general elections was dubbed as thefirst social media election in the country.
The GE 2017 which was announced asa “snap election” by Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of the 2020 date in orderto make Brexit a success (Boyle and Maidment, 2017) saw social media platformsspecially Twitter turning into a political battleground for the politicalparties while attracting many first-time young voters (Thorsen, Jackson andLilleker, 2017). The number of Twitter users in 2017 rose to 16.4 millionfrom 14.8 million in 2015 within the election period (Bright et al., 2017 cited Statista, 2017). Thesocial media became the dominant source of political news and information(Gallacher and Kaminska, 2017) more than the traditional media which influencedboth the political candidates and public’s opinions throughout the election.
“Labour” was yet again the most active political party onsocial media to strategically plan and use their social media presenceinnovatively on a larger scale as compared to Conservatives. The party beganits online campaigning even before the elections began to appeal and target theyoung voters while investing in a huge effort in using Twitter and Facebook toencourage them to register their vote (Booth and Hern, 2017). Polonski (2017) notes that even though the Labour lagged inthe election polls throughout the campaigning, it won the battle for “votes” on”social media election” by gaining the highest number of votes as against theConservatives (Booth and Hern, 2017).The impact of Crosbyn and Labour party’s active engagementwith the voters led to 622,000 people (GetSet, 2017) supporting the party inthe final 24 hours of the registration period alone. Jeremy Corbyn himself tweeted on his personal Twitteraccount on a regular basis as a result of which 26% of his posts urged thepublic to vote for the party (MarketMakers’, 2017). During the entire campaign as Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker(2017) note, Labour garnered over 1 million shares on Facebook, which was threetimes more than the Conservatives besides posting over three times as often. While the Conservatives spent over £1 million on negativeFacebook adverts attacking Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn (Kentish, 2017) andfocusing on strengths of Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour focused more ongaining supporters by uplifting their campaign on both Twitter and Facebook(Kentish, 2017) Even though Labour party did not win the election, thesocial media did increase candidate Jeremy Corbyn’s online popularity among thenew age voters on Twitter (Polonski, 2017), which led to the Labour’s electionresult witnessing its share of vote rise by 9.6 points to 40 %, considered tobe the highest increase in a single election since 1945 (GetSet cited The Guardian, 2017) Twitter as a newssource and sharing of junk news:During the 2016 US presidential elections, the presence andsharing of fake news and targeted advertising on social media platforms werelargely debated.
Though there were distribution of strongly opiniated contentwith a political twist, but fake news was unable to make its way on Facebookand affect the outcome of elections (Littunen, 2017).Similarly, in a study by Oxford Internet Institutehighlighted by (Littunen, 2017) it was found that only 11.4% of “junk news”stories were shared as compared to 33.8% during US election. Though social media users shared five links to professionalnews and information, they even shared one link to junk news during electioncampaign (Howard et al.
, 2017).However, in another study by Bournemouth, it was found that while 13 % tweetswere regarding junk news, 54% tweets were linked to the professional news andinformation sources and about 16.5% of traffic was generated by highlyautomated accounts about UK politics (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017)The BBC was the most popular news source being shared with22.7% of the content coming from this source, followed by 17.7% links directingto the Guardian’s website (Howard et al.,2017). A majority of various otherpolitical content shared was from public generated sources like blogs and civilsociety organisations, whose links were more as compared to the links to junknews.
However, unlike the 2016 elections where it was claimed thatthe spreading of fake news propelled Donald Trump to office (Tait, 2017), the UK election results didnot see any influence of fake news circulation. An analysis by Buzzfeed (Bauchowitz and Hänska, 2017) notedthat among the 30 most frequently shared URLs, the Conservative supporters hadshared almost 13 story links attacking Corbyn and Labour and only 2 storieswere related to Conservative policy. On the other hand, Labour supportersshared 14 stories attacking conservatives while 7 focused on Labour’s policy(Bauchowitz and Hänska, 2017).
Meanwhile, on Facebook there were more links to negativestories about Corbyn and absence of positive story links to May.Twitter Analysis: Hern (2017) highlighted a study by the Oxford InternetInstitute which stated that the “Labour” party dominated the conversation onTwitter, with almost 40% of tweets on election-related hashtags and providedthe digital strategists an analysis of Labour winning the ‘social mediaelection’ (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017). On the other hand, the Twittersaw only 26% tweets about Conservative party, with the SNP, UKIP and LiberalDemocrats receiving 19 per cent, 9.6 per cent and 5.7 per cent, respectively(Hern, 2017).According to Twitter data (Gallacher and Kaminska, 2017),about 88% of the Labour candidates created account as compared to 73% ofConservative candidates.
With almost 63% of the online population (Polonski, 2017)using Facebook each week, of which 80% constitute the younger generation agedbetween 18 to 24, it makes Facebook the most widely used social networking sitein the UK. During the 2017 election campaigning, Facebook was the most crucialsocial media channel on which content of articles or videos were shared 16million times (Littunen, 2017) related to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Even though the most talked about politicians in the top 20political subjects during the election on Facebook were Theresa May and theTories, it was the Labour which gained popularity and whose posts were sharedalmost a million times (Shammas, 2017).
This proved how the social mediainfluenced and enhanced a serious political engagement while leading to youngvoters expressing their political opinion. But (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017) notes that Twitterhad the most crucial role to play throughout the GE 2017 campaign as theretweets made were more than the number of tweets as compared to the originaltweets being only about one-quarter of the total GE2017 discussion.The Twitter debate around GE 2017 which was dominated by thepro-Labour conversation hashtags (Cram etal., 2017) also witnessed the ongoing issue of “Brexit” as one of the topthree most popular hashtag. Not only the external issues but also the hashtagsintroduced by various broadcast media outlets heavily influenced the GE 2017Twitter debate (Cram et al., 2017) Brexit, which continues to be the hottest topic till date,saw an increase in the tweets and posts by the Conservatives from 20 per centto almost a third while the Labour did not post any content related to itduring the campaign (Express, 2017)With the Labour party focusing on social issues especiallyhealthcare as a part of the online campaigning, the posts on the party’sFacebook and Twitter pages were being shared almost three times more in totalby the users (Cecil, 2017). Twitter wasthe most powerful tool used by the Labour for which the party (Booth and Hern,2017) had spent a huge amount of money just to promote its single #forthemany hashtag. Corcoran notes (2017) that Corbyn’s video message on the dayof the election had over 88,000 engagements and 1.
6 million views whichprompted his followers to vote for him whereas May’s lengthy status updateattracted only 12,000 engagements (Corcoran, 2017) The Labour which was much more active in posting contentmore than the Conservatives and any other party successfully generated about2.5 total interactions as compared to the latter which had only 1 millioninteractions. Although 90% of shares, likes and comments for Labour was aresult of their video posts (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017) Even though Labour was a way ahead of the conservatives, theConservatives did saw a jump in its page for a brief period on May 27 followinga video post encouraging its followers to share it if they didn’t want to electCorbyn as their PM (Corcoran, 2017). The video had about 150,000 engagementsand almost 9 million views. Despite being considered to be the highest numberof views for any other political campaign video in the British history, theyoung voters were more inspired by the positive messages by Labour than thenegative tone of the Conservatives (Reid and Ma, 2017)The GE 2017 online campaigning witnessed a tough war betweenthe two major parties with the Labour page receiving more number of shares,likes and love reactions as against Conservatives page which saw more commentson less posts besides receiving angry reactions to majority of their posts(Corcoran, 2017)Out of every five posts on Twitter or Facebook byConservatives, four posts had mentions of either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn,an increase from 75% to 84% (Express, 2017)Due to the elections being called early only 63 per cent ofthe 2015 candidates used Twitter during GE 2017 as compared to 76% percent ofthe candidates in GE 2015. But, thetwitter activity increased, with candidates having a Twitter account posting 86tweets in 2015 (Technology Review, 2017) to 123.
5 tweets in 2017. Frequent Mentions andPostings: Twitter witnessed Jeremy Corbyn as the most mentionedaccount with 1,367,392 and Theresa May at only 654,417, much more than theirrespective parties where @uklabour was mentioned in 323.027 tweets [email protected] was mentioned almost 307,550 times (Cram et al., 2017) While #BBCqt was the most used hashtags followed by #GE2017,#VoteLabour was the third most used Labour hashtags (Thorsen, Jackson andLilleker, 2017). Here, mainstream media also plaDuring the beginning of the election campaign, Corbyn hadmore than twice the number of followers on both Twitter and Facebook as that ofMay’s accounts (Cecil, 2017) and by the end of the election Corbyn also gainedmore supporters than May.
With a 45 per cent increase in the number offollowers on Twitter and Facebook pages of Corbyn over the campaign, thenumbers reached from 850,000 each to more than 1.2 million (Cecil, 2017)More than the Labour’s account, Corbyn’s personal Twitteraccount had Labour supporting engagement which led to Twitter attracting moreLabour supporters as compared to Conservative engagement driven by May’saccount (Bauchowitz and Hänska, 2017)The generation of famous femes by @laboureoin ended up beingan exceptionally effective strategy for encouraging retweets conveying asocialist message (Cram et al.,2017). While conservatives posted about 10 to 20 posts a singleday, the Labour interacted more with its supporters through social media by postingover 30 posts (GetSet, 2017) each day across all the social media platforms.
Though the savvy use of social media platforms effectivelyby Corbyn and Labour helped them drive reach out to young first-time voters(Cram et al., 2017), the microtargetingadvertising strategy of Conservatives was effective (Wendling, 2017) butbecause it did not go down well with the public’s view led to their failureover social media (Wendling, 2017)It can be said that instead of shaping the public opinion,the social media was simply contemplating the opinion. According to the data by YouGov (Yaxley, 2017) the Britsbelieved that the broadcast media including 42% of television, print mediaincluding 32% of newspapers and magazines had more influence on them over socialmedia, which only had 26 % influence, regarding how they decided to vote. But about 50 % young voters (Yaxley, 2017) believed that itwas the social media which helped them choose whom to vote for as it was notonly primary source of political information but also helped them communicatewith the politicians directly. While television still remained the firstinfluence for the votes, social media turned out to be the second mostinfluence on votes by younger voters aged between 18-24 years old (Yaxley,2017)With the social media campaign which encouraged young votersto register their votes, the Labour party was able to add a total of 33parliamentary seats and outnumber the majority held by the Conservatives. The Labour party believed that the effective use of socialmedia helped them win the seats they lost during the GE 2015 with their messagevideos being able to reach to 30% of the UK Facebook users (Crabtree, 2017).
Conclusion:The result of the GE 2017 would have been quite different ifsocial media did not play a major role and influenced the campaign, as Twitterand Facebook only helped the Labour party transform its fate and gain supportthrough its powerful messages. The GE 2017 saw a massive use of Facebook and Twitter butthe political leaders and parties did not make their presence felt on otherpopular social networking apps including “Instagram” and “Snapchat” much. Eventhough they lack the share feature, these apps are built around close tieswhich would have helped the parties and leaders make the content stronglyeffective among peer to peer (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker, 2017).
WhileSnapchat was hardly used during the election, Instagram too saw only 33,200followers of Labour and 6,555 followers of Tories (Thorsen, Jackson and Lilleker,2017)The social media networks give the politicians and theirparties an opportunity to engage in new forms of community building and allowthe general public to enter their political arena through direct interaction(Gibson, 2015; Gibson et al. 2016). The parties are able to mobilise not onlymembers but also non-members to raise their voice and put forward theiropinions on their behalf during elections (Bright et al., 2017 cited Karpf et al). The new resources that such toolsgenerate clearly offer a considerable boost to parties’ capacity to fight andwin elections (Lilleker et al., 2017)In order to reach out to the users, the political partiesmade use of the social media as a powerful tool by sharing video messages onlybecause the broadcasting of any political advertising outside of official partyis banned from UK television (GetSet, 2017). The emergence of political attack ads (GetSet, 2017) whichwas prevalent in the 2016 Presidential campaign was also seen for the firsttime during the 2017 general elections.
The success of the leftist Labour party in UK during the2017 election on social media and the right Republican party by Donald Trumpduring 2016 US elections has been given to savvy use of Twitter and theimmediate sharing facilities of social media by the leaders and followers(Segesten and Bossetta, 2017). Even the results of the election show how awell-planned social media campaign with a targeted audience can provebeneficial to any political party. Witnessing the huge reach of social media in the US 2016 GEand UK GE 2017, it can be said that the social media platforms are nowproviding the politicians a new way of utilising their power. But, it is alsoto be noted that with social media becoming increasingly crowded and drippedwith fake articles and clickbait articles (Polonski, 2017) it gets difficultfor many political leaders and parties to build meaningful relationship withthe public (Polonski, 2017) The social media especially Twitter brought the volatilityand change within the political mobilisation and collective action in the GE2017 (Margetts, 2017)Twitter is obviously not illustrative of thevoters as a whole and along these lines it is not really a clear impression of”the many, not the few”. While Twitter can’t be utilized toanticipate elections and (Cram et al., 2017) the mind-boggling support that GE 2017 saw forLabour and Jeremy Corbyn may not be completely reflected in the polling booths,it is a helpful tool in giving us the mind-set of the individuals who arespurred enough to remark