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How the Left conquered social media While the Conservatives cling to ever-more-obscure corners of the mainstream media, Labour and its digital native activists are winning the Internet

Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

September 12, 2017   6 mins

During the election campaign, it was fashionable to mock Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies. They were reminiscent, some said, of the early 1980s when Michael Foot rebuffed criticism of his leadership of Labour by pointing to the fact he had a thousand supporters at his events, and “they all cheered”. However, as the MP and trade union leader of the time John Golding told Foot, “there were 122,000 outside who think you’re crackers”.

In the age of social media, though, rallies make sense. The audience for them is not primarily the diehard supporters who will turn out in the rain. It’s the hundreds of thousands of people who will see footage on regional news bulletins, and as ‘B-roll’ – the silent footage which is used as a backdrop to a voiceover – on Facebook videos. (Incidentally, if you want to tell whether a political party or candidate “gets” the internet, see if they have subtitles on their videos. If they don’t, it’s a red flag: many videos are watched on public transport or work computers, with the sound muted.)

For Corbyn’s team, the two important lessons from Sanders were “hold big rallies, make great videos”…

Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, his team has placed huge importance on social media – which they see as the antidote to the right-wing domination of the newspapers, and the way they set the agenda for the “impartial” broadcasters. His tweet announcing his victory in September 2015 included an embedded video of his acceptance speech, and was retweeted more than 2,700 times. From the start, his team recognised the importance of the digital sphere. In 2015, the TSSA union’s head of digital operations, Ben Soffa, was seconded to the leadership campaign. (He has since married Corbynite MP Cat Smith; the Labour leader was at the wedding.) Soffa, who created a phone-banking tool called Canvassing App, is now Labour’s head of digital organising.

Labour has also benefited from a large activist base full of digital natives: the campaign group Momentum holds regular gatherings of software programmers for what are called “hackathons”. By way of example, these fast and creative sessions built a carpooling app called “My Nearest Marginal” in just a week when the snap election was announced. That allowed Labour to capitalise on its far larger membership (Labour now has 550,000 members; the Conservatives have just 150,000, while both the SNP and Lib Dems have around 100,000) by directing canvassers to the most useful seats.

Just as a previous generation looked to the Obama campaign for insights into the latest fundraising and contact database tools, Momentum has built links with Bernie Sanders supporters. American activists held training sessions in Britain before the election, and veterans of his tilt at the Democrat nomination came over to help code tools such as a version of Hustle, his texting service to motivate volunteers.

There is a recognition among insurgent campaigns across Europe that the digital space is a counterweight to the established channels: the team behind the leftist candidate for the French presidency, Jean-Luc Melenchon, created a videogame called Fiscal Combat, where he seizes money from bankers.

An Obama-influenced digital consultancy, Liegey Muller Pons, created volunteer training apps for Emmanuel Macron which recorded simple canvassing questions such as: “What works for France?” (Macron also employed a digital guru to lay traps for hackers.)

For Corbyn’s team, the two important lessons from Sanders were “hold big rallies, make great videos”. Facebook’s algorithm pushes videos into news feeds – the website believes the format is key to its continued expansion – and shareability is vital. These controlled messages also reduced the number of risk-laden interviews Corbyn needed to give to what his team saw as hostile media groups.

Online, the Tories leant heavily on attack adverts, often featuring Diane Abbott. By contrast, the left pursued a divided strategy. Momentum posted adverts about the cruelty and callousness of the Tories which fired up the base and got out their core vote. Some dwelled on generational conflicts — such as a group of well-heeled pensioners sneering at younger voters, which reached two million people — which mattered in an election where the biggest divide in voting intention was by age. The official Labour adverts, however, often had a soft-focus, optimistic feel: one featured Lily Allen singing Somewhere Only We Know, over photos of workers in various industries, finishing with the slogan: “For the many, not the few” (see below). On Facebook, positive messages are particularly shareable; “I love the NHS” is a more appealing badge to pin on yourself than “I hate the most senior black politician in the country”.

All this meant Labour benefited from organic reach alongside its paid adverts.

Facebook does not release data about how political adverts use its targeting capabilities, whether based on geography, identity or interests. But Sam Jeffers, the co-founder of ‘Who Targets Me’ – which tracked 7,000 political Facebook adverts during the campaign – noticed that the Conservatives’ online adverts focused on potential gains rather than defending their own marginals. Jeffers claims that in the final stages of the campaign, there were no Tory adverts shown in Hastings and Rye – which Amber Rudd held by just 346 votes. That matters beyond election night: the tiny majority is regularly cited by Conservative MPs as a reason not to back her in any future leadership contest.

Similarly, Labour’s greater strength online is a reflection of its bigger membership, and the demographics of that membership. The Conservatives “remain a declining party, with a shrinking membership of fewer than 150,000, stuck in the elite-driven, broadcast-era mode that they (and Labour) perfected a generation ago, bolting on digital media targeting without the engagement,” Professor Andrew Chadwick of Loughborough University wrote this summer.

Throughout her leadership, Theresa May has been reluctant to engage personally with social media – seeing it as unserious. Her official Twitter account follows zero people, and according to Tim Ross and Tom McTague’s new book Betting The House, her team refused to issue statements on social media following the Manchester terror attack because “reacting quickly on Twitter” was “what David Cameron did”. While Twitter’s user numbers may be tiny in comparison with Facebook, it is the watercooler for all political journalists and commentators. May’s decision to cut herself off from it might be high-minded, but it has repercussions for her ability to communicate. (May has 360,000 Twitter followers; Corbyn has 1.4 million; he also has double the number of Likes on Facebook.)

Labour’s greater digital clout is also a reflection of Jeremy Corbyn’s persona, which is more suited to the social media age. His Snapchat account, run by his staff, posted “candid” photos of him drinking tea and travelling by train; it also shared straight-to-camera endorsements by celebrities such as grime star JME. It spoke to younger voters in a register that felt natural and unforced. (This carries risks, however: could even Corbyn’s anointed heir inherit his support, or is built too strongly around his “personal brand”?)

By contrast, Mark Wallace of ConservativeHome reports that “CCHQ did have a Youth Outreach officer, Calum Neilson, of whom volunteers and candidates speak positively. But he had been ‘hamstrung’, I’m told, by a Party ‘freaked out’ about youth campaigning, and was effectively forbidden from social media engagement during the campaign – leaving the Tory operation even further behind in online engagement.” There were also complaints from Conservative candidates that constituency Facebook pages were centrally controlled, and focused too relentlessly on anti-Corbyn messages at the expense of local issues.

This presents a dilemma for future campaigns. How do you maintain message discipline, while also cultivating the relaxed style which looks like authenticity on social media? Several high-profile Conservative MPs have decided to embrace the looseness of Twitter: Nicholas Soames uses endless hashtags; James Cleverly is unafraid to be an attack dog; even Jacob Rees-Mogg has now opened an account, starting with a tweet in Latin. Still, the party is lagging behind Labour, which has many big personalities (such as Jess Phillips) on Twitter.

Quietly, senior Labour figures have also developed relationships with the “alternative media”, such as the aggressively pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox and Canary websites. These sites, along with independent campaigns run by trade unions and single-issue groups, amplified Labour’s key messages. One of the little-noticed stories which harmed the Tories was their decision to drop a proposed ban on ivory sales; although this got minimal coverage in the papers, it reverberated around petition sites and blogs. (The Tories should have seen this coming; any MP will tell you that they are bombarded by automated emails about animal rights.)

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the 2017 election, though, is that it no longer makes sense to talk about “digital strategy” as a discrete phenomenon, or as an added extra. The Tories pouring digital resources into the wrong areas is consistent with the broader picture of the election. Theresa May also visited solid Labour seats in the early days of the campaign, when it looked as though she could expect to make sweeping gains. The same bad information was used to decide both digital and real world campaigning.

The Corbyn team and Momentum, on the other hand, exceeded expectations by combining the latest tools – such as the My Nearest Marginal app – with old-fashioned legwork from their large activist base. If the Conservatives want to “win the internet”, they first need to find more activists who intuitively understand it.

Helen Lewis is the former Deputy Editor of the New Statesman. She is now a staff writer at The Atlantic. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.


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