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U.K. Labour's Savvy Use of Social Media Helped Win Young Voters

  • Opposition party tweeted more, posted more, shared more often
  • More than 1 million people under 25 registered to vote in ’17

Luke Poults had never voted before. Yet in the run-up to the U.K. general election, the 29-year old sports coach found himself becoming increasingly politically active on social media.

He spent time watching pro-Labour Party videos shared by friends on topics such as health and education, and then re-shared these videos "to get people like me informed."

"Social media for me played a huge part in this year’s election and my decision on who to vote for," Poults said, who ended up supporting Labour.

The governing Conservative Party’s weaker-than-expected performance, and Labour’s gains, could be partly explained by the savvy use of social media among Labour supporters that helped drive young, first-time voters like Poults to the polls.

After the election was called, Labour and the Liberal Democrats party sent post after post on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging young voters to register via social media, often providing direct links to the relevant page.

Under 25s were by far the biggest group to register to vote, with more than 1 million signing up between April 18 -- when U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May set the election -- and the May 22 deadline, according to data from the U.K. government.

"Not only does this get people into the electorate, it also tells people that you want them," said Sam Jeffers, a co-founder of Who Targets Me, crowdsourced project looking at how political parties use Facebook for target advertising.

Under 25

Of course, new registration figures are naturally skewed toward under 25s. You tend to register when young. But people between 25 and 34 -- who have had at least seven years already to register -- were only marginally the second-highest group of new registrants, with 973,000 signing up.

In the run up to the election, Facebook was awash with political posts, ranging from Conservative attack ads to Labour grass-roots propaganda.

The Conservatives re-hired a brace of the digital experts, Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, who were in charge of digital strategy and branding during the 2015 Tory campaign, while Labour aligned itself to social media influencers, such as grime music artists Stormzy and Jme, who have a combined Twitter following of about 1.5 million.

As the election deadline drew closer, Labour’s efforts in dominating social media became increasingly obvious. From June 1 to June 7, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added over 90,000 followers on Twitter, compared with just 20,000 for May, according to data from media analytics firm Socialbakers.

More Views

Over the seven days to June 9, the Conservative Facebook home page had 438,544 interactions. In comparison, the Labour home page had 1.1 million, according to figures from crowdtangle, a social monitoring platform owned by Facebook.

In short, Labour tweeted more, posted more, and was shared more than all of its rivals.

"These are huge numbers," said Darren Lilleker, a professor at Bournemouth University, regarding Labour’s online reach. "I don’t think the other parties really understood the importance of social media."

But so what? It is much easier clicking “share” on a Facebook or Twitter post than it is going to your polling booth. But it also seems posting your political intentions online correlates to your voting tendencies.

In a 2012 study published in Nature, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and Facebook analyzed messages sent to some 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 U.S. congressional mid-terms elections. The study found that exposure to social media messages encouraging voting had a strong impact in motivating people to go to the polls. The researchers estimated that the messages helped get 340,000 additional people to vote.

‘Slight Impact’

For student Chloe Lawrance, 24, social media had a "slight impact" on voting Labour, but acknowledged the party’s presence online. "I do feel like Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn, worked really hard to utilize social media and encourage young people to share and tweet their policies and beliefs. Conservatives had very little connection in that respect."

Lilleker, who has studied social media’s impact on U.K. elections, said that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, experimented with a variety of different messages and understood the importance of dynamic photos and videos for making messages more shareable.

In addition to messages from the Labour Party itself, Lilleker cited get-out-the-vote messages produced by the leftwing Labour-affiliated group Momentum, which has championed Corbyn’s leadership of the party, as having likely boosted young voter turnout. He also said that a number of pro-Corbyn Facebook groups, such as those titled "We Trust and Support Jeremy Corbyn," which has tens of thousands of members, helped share pro-Labour messages.

Corbyn, Bankers

The majority of the articles widely shared on social media were predominately pro-Labour. One Facebook post backing Corbyn, attacking "bankers, with their multi million pound bonuses," was shared 177,400 times, making it the most shared post about the U.K. election during the campaign, according to social media analyzer Buzzsumo.

Not everyone agrees that social media has an impact on voting. Rachel Gibson, a political science professor at the University of Manchester, who has studied social media’s impact on election turnout, said that the link between viewing or sharing content that favors a certain campaign and then actually voting for that party is tenuous at best. "Most evidence is that reading social media itself does not cause people to vote," she said.

Gibson noted that in 2015, the Labour Party had a much bigger presence on Twitter and was tweeted about far more than the Conservatives, yet lost badly. And noted this year, despite a seemingly better run digital media campaign and beating expectations, they still lost.

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