Ever since Barack Obama swept to power on the back of a vigorous online campaign, social media has been a high priority for election analysts. Yet despite the UK general election in 2010 being dubbed by some as “the internet election”, social media use was still a relatively new phenomenon that wasn’t well understood. Now, with everyone that bit more comfortable in the online world, the stage is set for social media to play an even greater role this year.
The UK is actually leading the way in this respect. In 2012, analysis by the Office for National Statistics and Eurostat found that 57% of British adults had used social media in the past three months, making us the second most active nation in Europe.
This enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed by the two major parties, with both investing in prominent Obama strategists to enhance their campaigns, and both now vigorously posting Twitter and Facebook updates from party and individual MP accounts.
In terms of the content of these posts, the parties have made notable steps forward since 2010. In particular, both Labour and the Conservatives are making heavy use of campaign-poster style images and video content, in search of the “shares” that would broaden their audience and perhaps even create a viral hit. Notable in this regard are the Conservatives’ poster image of Ed Miliband sitting in Alex Salmond’s top pocket, and Labour’s video depicting David Cameron arguing with himself over the proposed television debates.
Labour in particular is hoping that these strategies can engage the traditionally apathetic youth vote. Polling by Ipsos MORI earlier this month found that 34% of 18-24 year-olds believe their sympathies will be influenced by something they read on social media, compared to just 13% of the general population. For these young people, social media is second only to the TV debates in importance, and the party that can best adapt in this arena could be the one that tips the balance in a tight election.
Looking beyond the efforts of political parties, there is substantial interest among researchers and academics in the role that social media can play as a prediction and analysis tool during and after elections. There are limitations – Twitter users, in particular, are disproportionately young and well educated, meaning they don’t provide the representative sample that traditional pollsters strive for – but there is evidence that social media can be a surprisingly accurate predictor of voting intentions.
Notably, researchers analysing the 2007 French presidential election found that simply counting the number of press mentions each candidate received was a better predictor of electoral success than many opinion polls. Meanwhile, when academics studied the 2009 German federal elections, they found that the number of times parties were mentioned on Twitter closely reflected the share of the vote they eventually received. Intriguingly, they also found that mentions of multiple parties within the same postings broadly corresponded with those parties’ real-world political ties and coalitions.
Whether these findings map onto the UK’s particular circumstances is debatable, but tools are emerging to facilitate this research. One such is the ElectUK app, launched this week by Tata Consultancy Services, which includes tools to track which politicians and parties are trending on Twitter, and what proportion of tweets about them are positive and negative.
What becomes apparent when using the app is the exposure that the smaller parties are receiving; in the 30 days prior to 24 March, UKIP was the most talked about party, with references in 41% of party-related tweets. While Labour managed second place with 25%, the SNP sat in third (15%), relegating the Conservatives to fourth (7%). The Lib Dems, whom pundits have suggested are struggling to get their messages across in general, are down in fifth with just 6%.
There is better news for the Conservatives when it comes to the tone of tweets they’re mentioned in. Some 35% of tweets about them were positive, compared to 24% that were negative, while Labour had just 23% positive and 25% negative. UKIP has garnered just 19% positive tweets and 35% negative.
Only time will where the next viral hit or social media gaffe will spring from. Will we see another Emily Thornberry putting their foot in it on the campaign trail? Or will the television debates again take centre stage, with social media acting as a public feedback mechanism? Either way, with six weeks to go until polling day, the likes of Twitter and Facebook are set to play a bigger role than ever.
Designed, built and delivered by Tata Consultancy Services, ElectUK turns your smartphone into an advanced social media analytics tool, giving you the ability to identify and share online trends around the upcoming election.