How the internet changed the UK's political landscape

David Gilbert looks at the effect social media had on the election

How the internet changed the UK's political landscape

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Glasgow on the last full day of campaigning for the general election | Image: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Last week’s UK election was significant for all sorts of reasons.

The shock result was Theresa May shooting herself in the foot, wiping out the slim majority she had in the House of Commons, while Jeremy Corbyn — widely derided both inside and outside his own party — defied all his critics to increase Labour’s representation.

However for some, the biggest surprise of all was the fact the efforts of the UK’s newspapers to undermine Corbyn and boost May had little-to-no impact on the outcome of the election.

Indeed, it could be argued that the efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail in the week before the election actually contributed to the skewing the result — just not in the way they may have thought.

One of the reasons for this is that the papers simply went too far in criticizing Corbyn, a character who is viewed by many as friendly, if eccentric, uncle rather than a political opponent to be savaged.

Another reason why the UK print media had less impact on the outcome of the election is that people simply don’t read newspapers in nearly the same numbers they used to, especially the younger generation seen as so crucial to Labour’s surprise results.

And that is why the internet and social media has become such an important battleground for politicians and political parties in recent years.

The UK election on Facebook

The overarching consensus appears to be that the Conservatives were trounced by the Labour Party when it came to rallying support and generating positive messages about their policies online. But do the figures back that up?

According to figures supplied by Facebook to Newstalk, it was Theresa May who was the most talked about leader prior to the vote last Thursday. By the close of the polling stations at 10pm on Thursday, Facebook said that 1.5 million unique users were discussing this election on Facebook. May was talked about in 65% of those conversations, with Corbyn involved in just 45% (some conversations involved both).

When you look at the parties overall, the figures are broadly familiar, with the Tories involved in 66% of conversations, and Labour talked about in 51%.

Of course being talked about is not necessarily a good thing, and according to the BuzzFeed News Social Barometer, which looks at the most-shared stories on Facebook and Twitter, almost all of the biggest stories shared on social media about May and her party were ones which attacked Labour. On the other hand, looking at the most-shared Labour stories, Buzzfeed found that most of them were positive and talked about Labour’s policies.

It is clear from the list of stories that Tories supporters were more focused on trying to knock down Corbyn than promote any of May’s policies. This data suggests that Labour’s tactic of focusing on promoting its own manifesto rather than trying to undermine the opposition was a winning one.

The UK election on Google

Google is a company which has a pretty strong understanding of how a country is feeling, given that what most people type into that rectangular search box is typically an unfiltered window into their soul.

According to stats given to Newstalk by the search giant, the interest in Labour has spiked massively in 2017 when compared to interest in all the other political parties in the UK, as you can see in the image below:

As we said above, simply being searched for does not automatically constitute support, but the spikes seem consistent with other trends in the past, like the Lib Dems seat gains in the 2010 election, and the increased search interest in UKIP coming up to Brexit.

Memes and videos

Just observing the various memes and trends on social media in the weeks leading up to the election, it was clear that Labour supporters were much more internet-savvy than the Conservatives.

While Theresa May was being ridiculed for running through fields of wheat and being unable to eat chips, Jeremy Corbyn was being lauded for being “the absolute boy” or simply being able to eat Pringles.

The Momentum grassroots organization was one of the main reasons Labour was much better at getting its message across to a wider audience. It was able to corral independent videomakers up and down the UK to  produce upbeat videos for the party for free, focusing on topics which people wanted to engage with.

According to the group itself, one in three Facebook users in the UK saw one of their videos during the campaign. The Conservatives had no such group trying to push their policies to an audience which by-and-large never picks up a newspaper.

This pro-Labour video has been viewed almost three million times on YouTube alone:

On the other side of the coin, an ad paid for by the Conservative party attacking Corbyn’s speeches has been watched more than seven million times, though it's unclear how many people shared or engaged with it.

As well as relying on supporters spreading the message organically, both the Tories and Labour bought Facebook ads to target specific constituencies, using the power of social media to tailor messages to people in specific geographical areas — something which is likely to increase as the power of national campaigns in newspapers wanes.

Social media clearly played a major part in the UK election last week, helping Labour build a huge audience of voters who have been ignored previously by parties focusing their attention solely on the print media. The Conservatives know they got it wrong, and Labour know they have a powerful weapon which they will be hoping will allow them to continue to build support among people who may never have engaged with politics before.