With just hours to go before the country’s next government is decided in the polls, the state of the political parties on social media paints a fascinating picture. In fact, I would argue that it’s high time that social media is considered much more widely in election commentary, as a rich alternative to polling data.
To explain: traditional polling, used by most mainstream media, is typically based on sample sizes of around a thousand voters, some of whom might say one thing to a pollster, and vote another way on election day itself. By contrast, the six leading political parties in GE 2019 (Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, the Green Party, SNP and the Brexit Party) have a combined social media audience of 5.4 million. And many of those followers freely advocate their political choices in terms of positive user engagements and commentary.
That’s a large and relatively clear pool of data to fish in, even after you’ve worked through the potential caveats!
So what does the current social media data tell us?
The first thing to note is that social media audience sizes can be misleading. Labour has historically had the most support in terms of fans and followers, a fact that remains true now - despite the party having been out of power for 9 years.
Labour has 2.0 million followers, compared to just 1.3 million for the Conservatives, 647k for the Greens, 547k for the SNP, 464k for the Brexit Party and 427k for the Lib Dems. If elections were decided on social media followers, Jeremy Corbyn would be in number 10.
However, looking at social media posting frequency and user engagements (e.g. likes, comments and shares), an entirely different picture emerges - and one that is far from comforting to Labour. The Conservative Party, despite its lower social audience size, is by far ahead on most of these metrics.
Across all the parties monitored, the Conservatives posted 31% of the total number of posts (2.3k), versus Labour at 1.7k posts. And not only are the Conservatives more active, but they have also managed to attract the lion's share of social media engagements (e.g. likes, comments, shares): 37% of the total, or 6.1m.
Of course, some of that engagement may be negative (e.g. angry reactions and trolling commentary); but the Conservatives also lead on explicitly positive support (i.e. likes and positive reactions): 37% of the total, or 3.9m.
In short, the Conservatives are by far more active on social media and have gained more positive support and user engagements, despite having fewer fans and followers than Labour.
One caveat to this surge behind the Conservatives is a stellar social engagement rate (number of engagements by social follower numbers) for the Brexit Party, at 1.31%, vs 0.53% for the Conservatives, and 0.40% for Labour. This is all well and good, but the Brexit Party's very strongly advocating followers - true believers in the cause - lack mainstream clout. They just don't have enough supporters to make a significant impact.
And another caveat is that Labour is first on the number of social content shares it has received, at 40% of the total (1.4 million shares) - vs 31% for the Conservatives, at 1.0m shares.
Sharing content can be seen as a proxy for user advocacy, and as such, this is a win for Labour - but in the context of a smaller Conservative following who are much more engaged generally, this sharing count isn’t enough to counter the wider trend.
A fascinating context is revealed by looking at the parties' most engaged with social media posts from Oct to Dec. Despite three years of 'owning' Brexit, and all of its travails with the EU negotiations, the Conservative Party's most engaged with posts are a Halloween post warning against a Corbyn government, and a law and order post following the London Bridge terror attack.
In fact, of its top 10 most engaged with posts in total, only two are about Brexit.
It is actually somewhat incredible the extent to which the Conservatives have remained, to its followers on social media at least, free from Brexit.
As for the other parties, the most engaged-with posts often play to established strengths - NHS for Labour, Extinction Rebellion for the Green Party, Scottish Independence for the SNP, and the personality of Nigel Farage for the Brexit Party.
The Liberal Democrats appear weaker, in the sense that their most engaged with posts are anti-Boris Johnson, and focussed on Jo Swinson as a person. Perhaps surprisingly, its #StopBrexit agenda hasn't gained much social media traction.
And so, as the country goes to the polls, Labour on social media appears to be trailing the Conservatives, and the latter is an overwhelming force on social media - a force that’s almost miraculously, neither defined nor restrained by Brexit.