As Brits head to the polls for the fourth general election this decade—a frequency of voting matched only in the 1920s and 1970s—there is a tendency amongst some commentators to underestimate how radically the democratic process has changed in the space of a century. Between Bonar Law and Boris Johnson, however, the public sphere has been revolutionised. In the 1920s, newspapers still dominated. In the 1970s, it was television. In the 2010s, it has been the Internet and, most recently, the network platforms we call “social media.”
Most British political pundits act as if this latest change has not happened. They pore over opinion polls and scrutinise television interviews much as their predecessors did when Ted Heath and Harold Wilson led the two major parties. This has led many of them to overestimate the Conservative party’s chances of winning a majority this week, just as it led them to underestimate Labour chance’s in 2017. For 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.
Let’s begin with Facebook, the most popular platform, which reaches 43m people of voting age. While it might be tempting to dismiss social media as the preserve of Millennials and Generation Z, this is not the case with Facebook. Of UK users, those 35 and older number 24m—56 per cent of the total.
It is therefore not a trivial finding that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour-leaning groups lead their opponents on Facebook in terms of both followers and engagement. We analysed two different sets of data for the month from 8 November to 7 December, 2019: 1) official candidate pages, and 2) groups related to the election.
For candidate pages, we looked at 497 pages that Facebook indicates are official pages owned by UK candidates. We tallied the number of followers, the number of posts—statuses, links, images, and videos—and the number of interactions—that is, the number of likes, comments, or shares received to posted content. Out of 12,256,862 interactions, Jeremy Corbyn was the clear leader with 47 per cent, more than twice Boris Johnson’s share of 21 per cent.
Corbyn’s high share of interactions is only partly accounted for by his larger number of followers—1,555,000 versus Johnson’s 772,000—follower counts that have remained relatively static over the last month. (Since 11 November, Corbyn’s has increased by 3.1 per cent and Johnson’s by 2.7 per cent.) Nor does the difference lie in the number of posts. In the past month, Corbyn has posted only 375 times, less than Johnson’s 464.
The key difference is that each of Corbyn’s posts received on average over 15,000 interactions, whereas Johnson received a third as much—only about 5,500 interactions per post.
For example, since 1 December, Corbyn’s most-watched video features American comedian Rob Delaney praising the NHS, which garnered 6.7m views. Johnson’s most popular video in this period, a clip of his promise to voters not to sell the NHS, received just 1m views.
Candidates outside the top 10 performed the worst, accounting for nearly 19,000 posts, or 91 per cent of the total, but averaging only 124 interactions per post.
In short, Facebook users are engaging with Corbyn’s posts at a much higher rate, which could imply that his followers are online more often, that his message resonates more with Facebook users, or both. The use of social media in previous elections shows us that voters are far more likely to trust in messages shared by family and friends. And family and friends make up a significantly higher proportion of Facebook users than Twitter users.
We also looked at the 48 groups that Facebook and its analytics subsidiary, CrowdTangle, have highlighted as most relevant to UK election coverage and activity. We assigned a party affiliation for groups that clearly favoured either Labour or the Conservatives. We kept “Leave” separate, reflecting the continued role of the Brexit party and treated “Remain” as a proxy for the Liberal Democrats. We then tallied the number of interactions, posts, and members.
Labour groups had the largest share of interactions over the last month—just about 50 per cent of the total—with the group “We Support Jeremy Corbyn” far ahead of the competition. In general, Labour groups also have a higher number of members. For example, the “Jeremy Corbyn’s dank memes stash” group has 29,000 members. The largest pro-Johnson group, the “Boris Johnson Appreciation Group”, has only 3,500 members. Labour groups also tend to be more active, posting more content over this last month.
The bottom line is that Labour-leaning groups are larger and more active on Facebook, which implies a greater ability to mobilise potential voters, as can be seen below.
In 2017, the balance of Google search interest moved from significantly more search interest in May due to her early campaign lead (as represented by a positive number in the chart below) to more interest in Corbyn as the election approached. Search interest proved to be a good tracker of the surge in interest in Corbyn amongst voters in the run-up to the election.
This pattern does not appear to be repeating itself this cycle, which is good news for the Conservatives. On the other hand, the Tory leader’s advantage has tended to diminish over time and in fact vanished altogether for most of November.
Although a popular figure in some respects, Boris Johnson is not a typical populist when it comes to social media. He came late to Twitter, joining only in April 2015, more than five years after Jeremy Corbyn. This explains why Corbyn dominates Johnson on Twitter, with 2.3m followers to Johnson’s 1.3m. The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has nearly as many followers as Johnson, despite being a figure of only local interest.
To assess engagement, we analysed tweets by Johnson, Corbyn and the Brexit party leader Nigel Farage since the announcement of the election on 29 October until 3 December:
Corbyn’s tweets saw roughly twice as much engagement, both in absolute terms and relative to his follower count. Moreover, Johnson’s team’s use of Twitter is relatively unsophisticated—some messages are duplicated on the same day, for example. In this, as in many other respects, Boris is no Donald Trump.
On Instagram, Corbyn still leads Johnson in terms of follower counts and engagement, but by a significantly smaller margin than on other major platforms. On the other hand, Instagram is also the only platform where Corbyn’s following has increased dramatically during the election campaign. From 11 November to 5 December, his follower count rose 28 per cent. In the same period, Johnson’s followers grew by nine per cent and Farage’s three per cent.
While this increase in followers may reflect increased enthusiasm for Corbyn’s message, it is also a function of Instagram’s demographics. Instagram’s audience skews younger, with a majority of its users in the 18-29 age group, which also helps to explain Farage’s poor numbers on the platform. Corbyn’s dramatic Instagram growth suggests that, as in 2017, his message is resonating with younger voters.
Instagram follower growth is also uniquely affected by social media savviness. The primary method by which Instagram users can share messages is via reposting another user’s post or story to their story. This is a relatively new feature, which some older users may not know how to use—unlike Facebook or Twitter’s simple, one-click sharing options.
Three years ago, opinion polls and pundits confidently predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. presidential election. The best evidence that she would lose was the fact that Donald Trump led her by considerable margins on Facebook, Twitter and Google search. We are therefore surprised that so little attention has been paid in the intervening period to Jeremy Corbyn’s persistent lead over his Tory rivals on all social media platforms.
Are we missing something? One possibility is that the Conservatives are quietly dominating online advertising. That would not be surprising, given the key role that the prime minister’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, played in the 2016 Leave campaign, which is well known to have made effective use of Facebook ads.
We therefore also analysed Facebook ad spending in this election campaign. The graph below groups all UK Facebook ad buys over £10,000 in the period from 4 November to 3 December.
As the chart below shows, Labour groups’ Facebook ad buys comfortably exceed those of all the other major parties. The Liberal Democrats have also been relatively aggressive with their Facebook ad buys. Facebook’s targeted ads are an important part of the Lib Dems’ strategy to win over pro-Remain Tory voters in marginal constituencies. By comparison, the Conservatives have not been particularly active on Facebook, spending 38 per cent of Labour’s total over the period (and less than the combined spend of environmental charities).
One last possibility remains. As he has said he did in June 2016, Cummings has waited until the last week of the campaign to “flood the zone.” If so, however, he is not doing it on Facebook. Over the past seven days, Labour has spent £178,000 to the Tories’ £81,000; Corbyn £100,000 to Johnson’s £42,000.
Over the past 24 hours, Labour spent £25,000, the Tories £27,000; Corbyn £22,000, Johnson £12,000.
Over the past week, it is true, the Tories ran 6,800 ads and Labour only 404.
But this could mean one of two things: either Tories are doing a lot of A/B testing and getting more bang for the buck with micro-targeting, or Labour already did their A/B testing in a previous round of ad purchases, and have already settled on the most effective 400 ads. We think the second explanation is the more likely, as in the past 24 hours the Tories ran only 198 ads versus Labour’s 214.
Are we tying ourselves in knots over nothing?
Perplexed by all the above numbers, we reached out to sources close to 10 Downing Street for reassurance. We were told that private as well as public data implied a Conservative majority of 30-70 seats, although the margins were “very fine” so that shifts of a couple points in the last five days could move quite a few seats.
Our source was emphatically “not worried about…social media” as “Labour is behind the curve in all sorts of ways.” If all the polls/models are wrong, we were told, “it isn’t because of their performance on social media.”
We’ll see. As the pioneer of rigorous forecasting Philip Tetlock wrote of our earlier commentary on this issue, “Best time to appreciate fine line between subtle vs. misleading clues is BEFORE you know outcome. One guarantee: in a few days, we’ll look back & say EITHER ‘wow, how could markets have missed something so obvious?’ OR ‘how could Niall have talked himself into knots over nothing?’”
In this case, 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. We hope fervently to have talked ourselves into knots over nothing.
But here are the facts. Labour’s social media dominance was an underappreciated factor in 2017’s election. This time, Labour again lead the Conservatives in both the scale and sophistication of their social media use, a point that most mainstream commentators have overlooked. This is true across all major platforms.
Granted, there is no evidence of a widespread surge of interest in Corbyn of the sort we saw in the 2017 campaign. Two years on, Corbyn is much better known—and much less popular, above all for his failure to deal with anti-Semitism within the party he leads. He also faces a more effective campaigner than he faced in 2017. It’s just that these Tory advantages are invisible on social media.
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.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. Manny Rincon-Cruz is a research associate at Hoover. Nick Kumleben is an analyst at Greenmantle