At a recent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn told his disgruntled MPs that it doesn’t matter they are a near unprecedented twenty points behind in the polls because he is “big on social media”. One unsympathetic MP said Jeremy’s 850,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook are “worth sod all”, but social media has undeniably been a disrupting force in politics around the world from the Arab Spring to Donald Trump.
Buzzfeed’s brand new Social Barometer tracks popularity on Facebook and shows Corbyn is right. Positive stories on the Labour leader are shared widely while only negative stories about the Conservatives get traction.
Facebook has given a platform to hobbyist bloggers that now rival the “MSM” (main stream media). The most viral article shared on Facebook in the first two weeks of the election campaign was not from a big title but from the Corbyn supporting blog AnotherAngryVoice.
Politicians used to depend on the mass media to get their message out to voters. Now Cabinet reshuffles are conducted on Twitter and if journalists are invited on the campaign trail, they are often left wondering why the party leaders don’t take questions. Corbyn did no interviews following the budget, opting to release his own edited video clip on Facebook instead. Diane Abbot also seems to think it’s not worth preparing for interviews anymore, with two car crash interviews in the past week.
Despite a sparse election war chest the Labour party has increased its social media budget from £16,000 in 2015 to £1million for the current election. Given that the Conservatives spent £1.2 milllion on social media in 2015, they are still likely to be way in front in terms of social media spend.
A visual depiction of recent polls pic.twitter.com/LO5hMR4kAZ
— Matt Cowley (@matcow7) April 14, 2017
But in terms of traction it’s not the size that counts as shown in last year’s US election. Clinton’s team spent many millions of dollars on sophisticated online campaigning but Trump, on a much more modest budget, used his tried and tested method of stoking a storm of controversy by saying something outrageous to capture the swing voters’ heart and votes. In the words of Australian election guru Lynton Crosby, the strategy of “throwing a dead cat on the table”. Can Jez actually make this work this side of the Atlantic?
Last year’s US general election demonstrated the power of the internet but it is a mistake to directly translate that into the UK’s constituency based general election. In our parliamentary system, elections are decided at the margins in particular areas of the country. They are decided by strands of the electorate who wave from one party to another, encapsulated as “Essex man” and “Mondeo man” by Blair, and in 2015 the “shy Tories” gave Cameron his victory.
When it comes down to it, the government we get in June will not be decided by the devout who share fringe articles and shout into the wind on Twitter. Not even by those who take the time to follow politicians’ accounts online. Elections are won by canny politicians who persuade dispassionate voters who don’t care that much about politics that they’re better off with them than their rivals.
It will start to grate to some, but Theresa May will continue to repeat “strong and stable leadership in the national interest” at every possible opportunity until the election for the simple reason that those she wants to hear it will only hear it a couple of times. It doesn’t really matter if Jeremy is big online because those middle voters don’t click on “How many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?” from some suspicious blog.
Facebook is now the most sophisticated advertising platform, which is great for reaching an audience that are likely to buy your products or are predisposed to your views, but not so good for getting through to those who aren’t. And when it comes to Jeremy, people have already made up their minds.
The Conservative’s early campaign on Jeremy’s election highlighting his “friends” in extremist and terrorist groups, mass resignations from his shadow cabinet and the general view of his incompetence has left him with personal YouGov poll ratings lower than any other British politician ever, at -40.
Corbynistas often say that people will change their minds when they get to see the real Jeremy. The problem is, will he ever appear in their news feeds?