General election 2019: How the major political parties are using social media

The second half of the 2010s has been marked by significant political turmoil throughout much of the world, from the election of Donald Trump and the yellow vest protests in France to wider civil unrest in countries such as Hong Kong, Iraq, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile.

Then, of course, there’s Brexit. After the EU referendum in 2016 and the subsequent early general election in 2017, news came on the 29th October that the UK was to face its third general election in four years – the ‘Brexit election’, according to some. Few could have predicted these twists and turns, or the extent to which our creaking political machinery would drag us to this apparent breaking point.

Since parliament voted for the 12th December poll, the reaction has been predictably polarised. Campaigners and activists are relishing the opportunity to propel their respective parties to power, whilst other elements of the electorate, worn down and fatigued by recent political developments, are expressing frustration.

With the digital frontier unfolding rapidly and unpredictably before our eyes and placing itself at the heart of our day-to-day worlds, we thought we’d explore the way each political party is approaching social media during the 2019 general election campaign.

Here, we explore the development of this new political battleground, how each party is framing its messages, the significance of viral content and the paid social advertising each party is employing.

The digital battleground

The political battlegrounds have widened dramatically during the 2010s, and especially since 2016, when the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns succeeded. Clearly a number societal factors are driving the current turmoil, from the lengthy repercussions of the financial crash to growing inequality and climate change, but one of the most intriguing and crucial societal developments has been the growth of the digital world and how it has become increasingly intertwined with politics.

The development of this political and digital nexus can be traced to numerous points in the last decade. Some claim that the 2017 UK general election was the first digital election, when Labour defied the polls, with the help of a very strong social media strategy, to remove Theresa May’s Conservative majority. Others point to the 2010 and 2015 votes, whilst there has also been huge controversy surrounding the links between the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in recent years. We could even go back to Barack Obama’s big data victories of 2008 and 2012. What’s certain is how integral digital communication is to today’s political campaigns and how little is understood about its new role in our democracies.

Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

These new developments and concerns are beginning to be raised directly with the social media giants, Facebook and Twitter. Recently, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey responded to growing concerns about the relationship between social media and political campaigning by announcing that the platform would be banning all political advertising, saying that such messages “should be earned, not bought”. No such promises have been forthcoming from Facebook, but the pressure is building and former Liberal Democrat leader, now Facebook policy chief, Nick Clegg, has said that ‘micro-targeting’ could be reined in.

Just to outline the dangers and precarity of the new political digital battleground, the Labour Party was subject to two cyber-attacks last week, with Jeremy Corbyn saying, “If this is a sign of things to come, I feel very nervous about it.”

All of this is important because throughout this general election, each political party will be vying for social media reach to amplify their messages – mainly targeting undecided voters, young people and those who have traditionally been detached from the political process. And social media, as proved by Labour’s surge in 2017, can have a very strong impact. When it comes to the youth vote, Labour will probably see themselves as having the upper hand – young people typically reject right wing politics and they’re, of course, much more frequent users of social media platforms.

So, how are the UK’s political forces shaping up on social media? How are they using this new arena to promote their ideas and what are the messages they’re looking to convey?

The messages

Whilst neither party’s manifesto has been finalised and released yet, both parties have been making a number of initial pledges. Labour are moving the discussion away from Brexit and looking to offer a deep transformation of the state and ‘real change’, exemplified by free fibre broadband for everyone, £26bn NHS funding, closing the gender pay gap, scrapping university tuition fees, a Green Industrial Revolution to tackle climate change, funding for schools, care homes and council homes.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, are much keener to frame the election around leaving the EU, calling on voters to ‘Back Boris’ to ‘get Brexit done’. They’re also pledging to cut business rates for small businesses, end freedom of movement and introduce Australian-style immigration rules, but most of their messaging is geared towards attacking Labour positions – the Conservative manifesto isn’t due to be released until two weeks before the election, according to reports.

When it comes to the smaller parties, the Lib Dems are pushing hard with their pledge to stop Brexit completely and revoke article 50, whilst the Greens are looking to attract remainers having joined the Unite to Remain alliance alongside the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru. The Brexit Party, having stood down in all the seats the Conservatives won in 2017, are looking to target Labour leave seats heavily.

Virality and the importance of video

Getting these messages out quickly and to as wide an audience as possible is the key aim in political campaigning and social media’s potential to reach those historically ignored by politics has huge potential across the political landscape. Subsequently, this is why viral content and video have become crucial vehicles for driving messages to the public.

How is viral content utilised in the political context? In an election campaign, viral social posts tend to spread from three sources – the parties’ official channels, their leaders’ channels and from individual party supporters, whether they’re media figures or grassroots activists.

In this new landscape, we often see clipped video from TV interviews going viral online, a relatively new election phenomenon, which you will have no doubt experienced – Momentum’s national coordinator, Laura Parker, went viral with this video discussing the ethics of billionaires, for example. Whilst this can hugely amplify organic messages from across the political spectrum, we must also be wary of disinformation. One controversial example of this from the campaign so far, was the video appearing to show Labour’s Keir Starmer struggling to explain his party’s Brexit policy. Despite being shared by numerous Tory MPs and supporters, it became clear that the video had been doctored to misrepresent Starmer’s reaction.

Momentum national coordinator, Laura Parker, goes viral

When it comes to the official messaging, Labour are following on from the success they enjoyed in the 2017 election by starting strongly in the video stakes – they’ve racked up around 16 million video views on Facebook and Twitter in the last week alone, whilst the Conservatives trail at around 12.5 million views. Video content on both sides tends to take either the form of an attack video – disputing or manipulating an opponent’s claims to discredit them – or a policy announcement. Attack videos are a key focus of social media campaigning – the Tories posted five videos in two days condemning Labour on national security, Scottish independence and Brexit, whilst Labour have been condemning the Conservatives’ handling of the NHS and the potential for NHS privatisation.

Unconventional tactics

As well as the standard process of creating and sharing video content, there are unconventional tactics being used by both sides.

To drive organic reach and the virality of content, the Labour-supporting grassroots organisation, Momentum, is calling volunteers to monitor TV interviews and to flag clips which could be used as part of the viral video strategy – Emma Rees goes into more detail on Momentum’s strategy on the Politics Theory Other podcast. The organisation also has a WhatsApp group to coordinate messaging and the sharing of organic content amongst thousands of members.

A tactic dubbed asymmetric advertising has also been highlighted – content that is designed to hijack a user’s social media feed and to become amplified on the platform because of its perceived poor quality. For example, the Conservatives shared a post using the Comic Sans font, which was widely shared and ridiculed by Labour supporters. This ridicule, however, may also have unintentionally amplified the message within the news feeds of social media audiences typically used to seeing Labour-supporting content.

Sh*t-posting?

The BBC, and Laura Kuenssberg, came under fire recently for incorrectly labelling this tactic as ‘shit-posting’ – a reminder of how difficult it can be to keep up with the developments of the digital and social media worlds.

Facebook advertising

A crucial and defining factor in any discussion surrounding social media and politics is regulation (or more accurately, the lack of it). Whilst political advertising in print and broadcast media is heavily constrained by legislation, regulation of political digital advertising is non-existent and currently left in the hands of the tech giants and those agitating for reform and legislation. Whilst Twitter will be halting all political advertising, Facebook is the key battleground, where there is still very limited transparency. This has resulted in major political parties focusing huge resources on the platform with the public still trying to understand exactly how they’re being influenced.

Conservatives outspending the rest

The Who Targets Me browser extension is a good tool for understanding the ads you’re being served, whilst Facebook’s Ad Library allows us to see exactly what ads the political parties have run recently. To develop more of an understanding of the parties’ Facebook advertising, read on…

Labour

Messaging: Labour are focusing broadly on policies, not just Brexit, and talking about transformation, change and hope.

Language: Fair, united, transform, care, belief, rebuild, save, hope, achieve, heart, real, radical, NHS

Facebook ad spend last 7 days (8th-15th November): £43,428

Ad content: Encouraging voter registration, highlighting a second referendum, free prescriptions for all, Boris’ visit to South Yorkshire floods, Green Industrial Revolution, NHS and calls for donations.

Examples:

Conservatives

Messaging: Tories focusing heavily on Boris and getting Brexit done.

Language: Forward, deadlock, Brexit, delay, defeat, Boris, deliver, priorities, unite, dither, future

Facebook ad spend last 7 days (8th-15th November): £55,126

Ad content: Brexit, questioning Labour policy

Examples:

Smaller parties

Liberal Democrats

Messaging: Lib Dems vying to be the party of remain by vowing to stop Brexit completely.

Language: Stop, remain, reshape, crashing, Brexit, stuck, revoke,

Facebook ad spend last 7 days (8th – 15th November): £42,400

The Brexit Party

Messaging: Pushing a ‘clean-break Brexit’ and targeting Labour-held leave seats.

Facebook ad spend last 7 days (8th – 15th November): £23,861

Green Party

Messaging: Focusing on the remain vote and environmental policy.

Language: Heating, burning, bigger, striking, climate, environment, remain

Facebook ad spend last 7 days: £0

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