#GE2017 Digital Media and Campaigns Analysis: A Review

It’s been about a month since the result of the 2017 UK general election. The Conservative Party and the DUP have announced a deal to prop up Theresa May’s Government. Elsewhere, the cogs of Brexit are grinding into gear as negotiations begin. The Greenfell Tower crisis continues to spread across the country to other potentially lethal tower blocks. And the UK Parliament was hit by targeted cyber-attacks, potentially by Russia. Nothing suggests this distinct period of political turbulence will end an time soon.

The election itself was remarkable. As was the use of digital media, which, despite being a central dynamic for many years now, is always adapting and evolving. With nearly three weeks past since the votes came in, I’ve collected and reviewed below some of the election-campaign media analysis I’ve come across in recent weeks. Specifically, the age divides and shifts in the use of digital media in election campaigns are the two key, entwined strands that I want to pull out here.

This by no means discounts the important role that wider forms of media have played during the campaign, as the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough have expertly traced.

For a broader source of analysis, The Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community at Bournemouth University have collected an excellent pool of contributions, some of which I refer to below.

Post-election Media Analysis: Age Divides and Election Campaigns

Firstly, some results:

1) How Britain Voted at the 2017 General Election, YouGov

A good starting point for any analysis of the election results is YouGov’s data, which breaks down the voting patterns along various key demographics. Based on a sample of over 52,000, it shows some key patterns. The most striking is the clear age gaps between Conservative and Labour voters. Labour has a higher vote share in every age group up to 40–49. Interestingly, the firmly centrist Liberal Democrats have a consistent 7–9% in every age group, suggesting the age split is a distinctly two-party phenomenon.

Also of interest is the vote by newspaper readership data. Guardian and Telegraph readers are on opposite ends when it comes to Labour voters and Conservative voters. Tabloids, barring Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, also show a firmly Conservative voting readership — although 30% of Sun voters report voting Labour. The Financial Times appears to have the country’s most representative readership, with a 39/40 split between Labour and Conservative voters, respectively.

The vote by newspaper data is interesting, but only reveals so much and can be unpicked. Influence is a key question. A report published last year, from the Reuters Institute for Journalism, showed that during the 2016 EU referendum, both the Guardian and the Financial Times had extremely low audience reaches compared to the leading tabloids: The Sun and the Daily Mail. Yet, on the other hand, the influence of these tabloids among the young has been called in question, having heavily backed Theresa May and strongly attacked Jeremy Corbyn. Clearly, however, there are some important electoral splits when it comes to age and digital media, which are worth investigating.

2) Digital News Report, Reuters Institute

Moving on from YouGov, the Reuters 2017 News Report is (as always) an incredibly detailed analysis of news consumption spanning 36 countries. There are far too many findings to summarize them all here. Some of the key findings suggest trust in the news is a key issue, with some countries reporting as low as 23%. Distrust is strongly connected to perceptions of political bias, in particular in countries such as the United States. Social media is undergoing some important shifts, with Whatsapp starting to rival Facebook in some countries as a source of news. However, many people think that social media provides an environment that aids the spread of ‘fake news’. Overall, a key context is the growing power of platforms, such as Facebook, and the multi-dynamic challenges that face the news industry. In this space we should expect to see some important changes in the coming years.

The report’s UK findings shed some important light on what’s happening to the media environment here and what happened during the 2017 election. Drawing on the report’s findings, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s summary of the UK’s media landscape, posted on May 30th, provides refined look at this, asking the important question: “where do people in the UK get their news in the run-up to the General Election?”.

Nielsen points out two important factors. The first is that television and, by a small margin, online digital media, are far and away the two primary sources of news, as the collapse of print continues. The second is the remarkable generational divides between how people source their news, with 84% of people in 18–24 bracket compared to just 21% of 55+ using online. When it comes to social media in particular, a quarter of 18–24 year olds use it as a news source. By contrast, 54% of the 55+ age group use television as a source of news, compared to just 9% of 18–24 year olds. Among this, however, the BBC remains a powerful and central news media organisation.

In summary, Neilsen says that:

Media developments in the UK are in line with those seen across the world — a move to a more digital media environment, where traditional media like broadcasters and newspapers are still very important producers of news, but where many people increasingly find their news via search engines and social media.

This really lays the ground for some explorations into the age divides and shifts in the use of digital media in election campaigns.

There is a core idea shaping things here: Labour didn’t win, but neither did the Conservatives — outright. We have a hung parliament; a minority government. Why?

3) The Conservative Election Machine Fell Apart

… and has been for a while. It has been widely acknowledged that the 2017 election campaign was visibly terrible. I don’t think even staunch Conservative supporters would argue with that. So far, the axe has fallen on the biggest branches of the oak: Theresa May, still hanging on; Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, now gone; and Lynton Crosby, the mind behind it all.

The terribleness of the 2017 campaign has come as a relative surprise. Aren’t the Conservatives good at winning elections? Wasn’t Theresa May a safe, let’s say, “strong and stable” pair of hands? Well, as Guardian writer Andy Beckett points out,

The uncomfortable truth for Conservatives, rarely acknowledged, is that their supposedly all-conquering party has not won a substantial general election victory since Thatcher’s final landslide 30 years ago.

2015’s surprise majority aside, in which David Cameron’s Conservative won 330 seats, the Conservative’s have struggled to win convincingly. They are nowhere near Labour’s 1997 levels. And the point that Beckett’s article makes is a incisive one: that there are systemic issues with the campaign machine. And much of this hinges, as the article’s sources within the Conservative Party and support highlight, on the use of digital media.

The use of digital media in campaigns has been with us a while now and are extremely well covered in the academic literature. Data and analytics now play a frontline role, a shift Daniel Kriess terms “technology-intensive campaigning”. As is well-known, a targeted ground war that utilizes specialist software to identify amendable voters has been a key innovation.

Yet, according to a source in Beckett’s article:

Tory activists across Britain were supplied with computer-generated lists of amenable voters by Conservative campaign headquarters in London. But this time, many canvassers got a shock when they knocked on doors. “The data was only 65% accurate,” says a local Tory organiser who has worked in the party’s heartlands in southern England for decades. “In the marginals, it was less than 50%.” In some cases, canvassers were accidentally sent to the addresses of activists for rival parties.

This is highly suggestive of the claim that the Conservatives have struggled to successfully adopt a modern digital-media campaign model. Recent efforts have looked distinctly analogue and mass-media oriented. Dumping bus loads of activists into key seats. A centralized campaign with a single message. A reliance on the tabloid press to run their campaigns for them. And quite possibly illegal campaign call centres.

This has potentially left the Conservative’s adrift in the ever more important online battlefields. As Jamie Bartlett writes,

In fact, the Conservatives almost certainly misunderstood the whole nature of online life. The alt-left media was producing nicely made content and sharing it manically online. Agree or not, it was real stuff shared by real people, some of whom were more active than a Russian bot. The Tories appeared to believe they could match it with lots of sponsored links and micro-targeted adverts. But nothing screams ‘not authentic’ like links that say ‘sponsored by the Conservative Party’ underneath.

This may well resonate with what we have just seen. Is it little wonder the Conservatives have been unable to reach the youth vote? However:

https://twitter.com/NickAnstead/status/879391373455175683

The Conservatives have been heavily targeting Facebook since 2015 and notably placed a paid Google ad when the Dementia Tax came under criticism. The latter strategy caused the Labour Party to be reactive, and post its own Google ad a few hours later. There is reason to assume, given the Conservatives won in 2015, that this online targeting worked well then. So I think it is fair to say that more research is needed on the situation within the Conservative Party and the effectiveness of their digital media campaigning. And, indeed, more widely:

https://twitter.com/andrew_chadwick/status/872940468941836288

https://twitter.com/declan_djmn1/status/872896057419718656

One thing definitively marks out the Conservative’s online strategy from the Labour Party’s, however. The Conservatives were rigid in their Crosbyite negativity. They spent less on their own support base than they did on going after soft Labour supporters. The Labour Party and its support base, however, built a multi-dynamic multi-platform that orientated around building support. This paid off especially well with young people, who spend more time online and have been increasingly marginalized and patronized by the Conservative Party and its supporters. This is a point backed up by the socioeconomic factors we must always keep in mind when it comes to why young people are engaging the Labour Party. On paper, this creates a perfect dynamic for a Labour Party willing to aggressively push online engagement.

So, what was the Labour Party’s use of digital media?

4) Digital Media Innovations are Renewing The Labour Party

Compared to the Conservative Party, the Labour party’s campaign was visibly good in many ways. Corbyn came across well in mainstream election media and managed to float a watertight manifesto in the choppy waters of UK media coverage. Their social media campaign, however, went fairly unreported.

So, in looking at Labour Party’s use of digital media, Andrew Chadwick points towards the underlying and systemic shifts in political engagement, elections, and our media system. A complex interaction between these shifts, The Labour Party, Momentum, and a growing-support base of active online users could be leading to a renewal of the Labour Party:

Digital media foster cultures of organizational experimentation and a party-as-movement mentality that enable many individuals to reject norms of hierarchical discipline and habitual partisan loyalty. This context readily accommodates populist appeals and angry protest — on the right as well as the left. Substantial numbers of the politically active now see election campaigns as another opportunity for personalized, contentious political expression and for spreading the word in their online and face to face networks. As a result, Labour is being renewed from the outside in, as digitally enabled citizens, many (though not all) of them young people, have breathed new life into an old form by partly remaking it in their own participatory image.

This appears to have gone down well for Labour, but has happened along various vectors.

The Corbyn memes appear to be a clear and visible sign of how this works in action. By their very definition, going back to Dawkins, memes are viral. As a form of political participation, they have an instinctive and pervasive presence online. And Corbyn memes proliferated during the election campaign:

Memes are nothing new under the sun. And good memes are born and die in a ruthless environment: just look at r/memeeconomy. But if we take the Corbyn memes as an electoral innovation (imported from social movement politics), the problem is the alt-right, during Trump’s campaign, was arguably the first to begin mass-weaponizing memes. And it still does. Elsewhere, this has lead to some thoughtful analysis that the left may need to begin seizing the “memes of production”.

Depending on how important they were as digital media during the campaign, how soon the next election will be, whether the internet has moved on from political memes by then and many other factors, you just can’t bank on memes. Nothing could be worse for The Labour Party than trying to centralize the memes of production or even a broader reflexive effort to produce Corbyn memes. They must remain deterritorialized to be effective, and by that virtue, are not a strategic asset. They have helped breath new life into the Labour Party, but perhaps more as a shot of adrenaline.

But there are two other vectors which have the most enduring possibility for renewal: Labour’s willingness to adopt the use of new digital tools and it’s membership-focused acquisitions of manpower. As Chadwick says, there are

[…] significant sections of the public who have started to channel their social media-enabled activism into party politics and to integrate it with face-to-face doorstep campaigning under the guidance of the new Labour party leadership and Corbyn’s ancillary movement Momentum.

Here, I think we are seeing something sweeping and innovative.

On the one hand, we have the use of new digital campaigning methods designed to target the electorate. During the recent election, the Labour party used a tool called Promote, which, coupled with Labour’s voter database, enabled it’s members to send personalized messages. This joins a host of other tools that have been developed between Momentum and Labour: Dialogue, CallForLabour, My Nearest Marginal.

Secondly, the expanding membership base. Labour has over half a million members and Momentum has between 20,000 and 25,000 members. This makes the Labour party membership around four times the size of the Conservatives. Although this is nowhere near the mid-20th century peak, shifts in the way in which the Labour party is organizing and organised by its members could be important — if we are seeing a shift towards this party-as-movement mentality that Chadwick describes. The Labour Party’s website splash, for example, now asks visitors to “join the movement”.

While existing members have access to a phone app or web browser that enables them to read the latest briefings, find the next nearest meet up, and get the inside track on campaigning:

These two dynamics: relatively healthy membership numbers and digital innovations, have the potential to work together to recompose the Labour Party’s approach to political engagement, internally and on the campaign. Moreover, much, though not all, of this has been created from the bottom up. This has created tensions: Momentum has been criticized from both within and beyond the Party. Yet, Labour’s 2017 result appears to have eased many of the tensions within the Party, perhaps clearing the ground for further renewal led by digital media orientated around creative uses of the membership.

Unsurprisingly, there have been Conservative plans to emulate both the use of social media and the use of grassroots groups like Momentum. The fact that the proposed Conservative version is called Conservative Renewal speaks some volumes about how the Labour Party’s current shifts, and the Conservatives own position, are seen within the Conservative Party.

The difference is one of, well, momentum. While Labour’s renewal takes on a centripetal nature as dynamics work themselves from the outside in, the Conservatives are attempting to renew from the centre. Both appear to be after the same methods of political engagement, which perhaps hints at a wider shift orientated around targeting younger voters. Ultimately, we might go back to the beginning and say that youth is giving the Labour Party the edge here. This is probably too simplistic. But, growing evidence, at both the ballot box and the keyboard suggests they may have a key role in the years ahead.