A lot has been made of social media’s political potential in recent years. Attempting to follow in the highly successful footsteps of ‘Social Media President’ Barack Obama, politicians in the UK are, after some early fumbled attempts (remember Gordon Brown cracking a smile on YouTube?) finally grasping how to use digital media effectively.
Social media gaffes are still landing a few in hot water – just ask Emily Thornberry, whose tweeted photo of a white van and St George’s flags outside a house in Rochester led to her having to resign from the Shadow Cabinet. Yet despite these occasional high-profile blunders, all the main parties and candidates are embracing new media, either because they want to or because they realise they have to if they stand any chance of grabbing the attention of an electorate saturated in digital content.
So how are they performing? One way to answer this question is to look at the followings of the main parties on the two main social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter.
If we were to predict share of the vote on the basis of Facebook ‘likes’, the Conservatives would, at the time of writing, have a marginal lead, shortly followed by UKIP (both with over 350,000 likes). Trailing some way behind are the Labour Party and Greens with a little over 200,000 likes each – a little more than the SNP and twice as many as the Lib Dems. Plaid Cymru have a small Facebook following, at around 13,000.
In comparison, on Twitter, Labour are out in front with around 186,000 followers, while both the Conservatives and the Greens have around 140,000 followers. UKIP and the Lib Dems both come in at around 85,000 followers, with the SNP shortly behind on 76,000 and Plaid Cymru once again with a small following of 14,000.
There appears to be ideological differences in users of each platform. The parties on the left are well-supported among Twitter users, while Facebook users lean noticeably to the right. This may, in part, be due to the fact that Twitter users tend to be younger, and we know that younger voters are more likely to support those on the left (the Greens, in particular have a substantial support base among 18-24 year olds, while those with allegiance to UKIP tend to be older, for example). Whatever the reason, the figures taken from each platform are so disparate that we can readily dismiss the idea of social media followings offering a reliable measure of actual voting intention.
The far-right political party and ‘street defence organisation’ Britain First is a case in point. With just under 700,000 likes, their Facebook following eclipses all of the other parties already mentioned, yet they managed to collect only 56 votes at the Rochester and Strood by-election. Clearly, then, developing a sizable social media following is not going to win any party the election.
Clicking a ‘like’ or ‘follow’ button is an action which, in itself, is devoid of any meaningful engagement in, or reflection upon, the matters at the heart of the campaign. To win votes, any party needs the electorate to actually pay attention and grapple with ideas. Achieving this is no easy matter.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University
View the blog tomorrow for part two of Hashtag politics: how to win the election on social media