Without Facebook, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would’ve received an absolute pasting at the 2017 General Election.
This is just an opinion, of course, but it’s backed up by some pretty persuasive evidence.
The media and ‘content’ has always had a massive say when Britain’s been to the polls, and the country’s heavily right-leaning newspapers have usually been in the thick of it: ‘It was The Sun wot won it’, that paper’s famous front-page headline from 1992, has gone down in folklore as indicative of the political power held by the press. But if the latest election has taught us anything it’s that digital content shared on social platforms has truly arrived as a political power in its own right.
It’s important to look at Britain’s political content landscape in context, as well as who it’s targeted at. The Sun and The Daily Mail, the two major right-leaning protagonists with combined sales of around three million copies a day, still have huge political sway, but social media has grown to the extent that those newspapers will never again be able to influence an election like The Sun did in 1992. But the parallels are spookily similar. Back then, the right-wing press had it in for Labour leader Neil Kinnock, a true socialist who they reckoned would bankrupt Britain and take the country back to the Dark Ages. Sound familiar? Fast-forward 25 years and Jeremy Corbyn had the same treatment – only this time, he and the Labour Party had a weapon at their disposal that Kinnock didn’t.
While the likes of the Daily Mail stuck to their pro-Theresa May agenda, they were preaching to an already converted crowd – typically in their 50s and 60s – who always turn out to vote. Corbyn’s big problem, so the story went, was that young people wouldn’t bother to drag themselves away from their phones to visit the polling booth. But something strange happened: pro-Corbyn content, aimed squarely at putting the other side of the political debate across, started spreading around Facebook and Twitter like some sort of left-wing bushfire. The youth vote was mobilised – and it turned out in bigger numbers than ever before. YouGov estimates that 58 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted, and that 63 per cent of voters between 18 and 29 went for Labour – as opposed to 22 per cent for the Conservatives. Contrast this with the 2015 election, where YouGov said that just 36 per cent of 18-29-year-old had voted Labour, with 32 per cent opting for the Tories.
The trend was already well established a month before the election. In the first two weeks of the campaign, the 20 most popular political stories on Facebook were all pro-Corbyn and pro-Labour, with total shares totalling around 950,000. The most popular was a piece called ‘How many of Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?’, from a site called Another Angry Voice. This in itself was significant: it wasn’t HuffPost or BuzzFeed, but a blog written by a part-time English teacher from Yorkshire. Nevertheless, it was shared nearly 80,000 times in the first week of the campaign.
Research by Oxford University’s Internet Institute showed that by the end of May, Labour had effectively got Twitter sewn up: Labour-related hashtags like #votelabour and #forthemany accounted for 62 per cent of the site’s political traffic. That’s before you’ve even factored in #grimeforcorbyn, the unlikely movement that saw artists like Stormzy back Jeremy Corbyn and implore young people to make their voices heard. Some Tories might’ve sneered, but it couldn’t have done any harm. On the election day itself, Labour paid to have #votelabour as a promoted trend.
Facebook saw videos uploaded in vast numbers throughout the campaign, with the material ranging from the serious to the hilarious. A video of a hustings in which Home Secretary Amber Rudd scribbled a note to silence an independent candidate, who was speaking about Britain selling arms to Saudi Arabia, was viewed 3.6 million times on EvolvePolitics’ Facebook page with a huge number of shares. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonathan Pie – the fictitious and frequently exasperated left-wing Westminster reporter – was regularly getting two million views on Facebook for his videos, showing that good satire is certainly not dead as a political weapon. In the final 48 hours of the campaign, it was calculated that social media videos posted by the Conservatives urging people to get out and vote were viewed less than half as many times as those posted by Labour.
From the amusing to the bizarre to the downright surreal, Corbyn memes were getting shared left, right and centre (well, probably not centre and definitely not right, but you get what we mean). Corbyn holding a massive marrow. Corbyn as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Corbyn pulling a funny face at a dachshund. Corbyn riding a unicorn. You name it, somebody made it. A host of Corbyn badges with the slogan ‘Get on board with the absolute boy’ also got made: Girls actress Lena Dunham posted herself holding one on Twitter and it was liked 45,000 times.
Amidst all the banter-filled tomfoolery, useful tools were another weapon employed by the Left. Voteforpolicies.org.uk was a site urging users to click which policies they liked, before advising them which party it meant they should vote for. While Vote For Policies is independent, tools such as this gave people the chance to find out if they agreed with Corbyn’s policies, setting aside any of the personal rhetoric in the wider press and any preconceptions they might have had. It was completed nearly 400,000 times. Tactical2017.com was a bit more direct, urging people to enter their postcode and telling them which way to vote to block their local Tory candidate. It was shared over 300,000 times on Facebook.
Facebook played its part in the 2015 General Election – indeed the Electoral Commission reported that the Tories spent £1.2 million on Facebook advertising during that campaign as opposed to £160,000 by Labour – but not like it did this year. It seemed as though two years of seemingly anti-Corbyn rhetoric from the established media meant enough was enough for the Left – and social media was the only tool they could use to fight back.
What we’ve just witnessed is the power of social media when it’s deployed by a single movement. The way it harnessed and motivated the youth vote will not be lost on Labour, or the Conservatives – especially after YouGov’s post-election breakdown estimated that just 28 per cent of Sun readers voted the way the paper wanted them to. Suddenly, 1992 seems like a very long time ago.
Next time, who’s to say that content on Facebook couldn’t swing the entire election, just like newspapers used to?
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