People online have have more political views than ever before. If you’re in politics today, you have to take social media into consideration. The memes are everywhere, and some say they even helped stop Labour getting a clobbering in the last UK general election.
But it’s not just the memes that mattered (no matter how spicy they were). Campaigning via online advertising is growing rapidly as a tool to engage voters of all ages. After all, a party can buy quite a lot of the data you’ve given Facebook – your ‘liked’ pages, groups, and content with which you’ve most often interacted.
During the recent general election campaign, both Labour and Conservatives were going out all guns blazing to get their campaign adverts plastered across the web. YouTube videos, social media sidebars, Google AdSense – they were all littered with political content.
So, we need to ask how all of this has affected the way that those of us who are online interact with politics. It’s a big question and one that has preoccupied parties and pollsters a great deal lately. What we saw during the general election was Corbyn's ability to mobilise voters without requiring anywhere near as many volunteers as in previous elections. Adding to that the large number of volunteers that Labour had anyway, and Corbyn managed a very credible result, even if he did not win.
In contrast, the Conservatives managed to exploit advertising and micro-targeting via social media, but didn’t have anything like the sort of dynamic online presence and impact that Corbyn’s supporters and the Labour leader himself had.
We saw this in lots of areas: viral videos, memes and supporters’ posts being shared around for more people to see on social media, sometimes making it into the news. Some have rightly pointed out that the internet does have a tendency to be a left-leaning echo chamber. But the Conservatives won more votes than Corbyn, and have managed to form a government, retaining the nonetheless unpopular Theresa May as prime minister.
Did this result depend more on those who have less interest in the internet? Absolutely. It also depended on age, education, income, wealth, health and self-defined social class. 18-24-year-olds voted overwhelmingly for Labour or the Liberal Democrats, demonstrating a clearly delayed backlash against Brexit. However, this is too simple an explanation.
The Conservatives, in failing to engage with a digitalised and global world within which most of Britain’s younger voters now live, lost a key opportunity to fight their corner amongst this age group.
As such, the internet became an environment of one way traffic; for politically interested but time-poor young people, that made their online experience an echo chamber.
Education also played a part. Degree-holders tended to maintain a firm support for Labour, even though the age of these voters weakened this correlation as it increased. Again, one might say that this is a reaction against Brexit, given the similar psephological patterns seen in analyses of the referendum result, but again, this is too simple. Given a greater online presence, a more educated audience would still have seen a majority of content that leant towards the Labour Party. It was an own-goal by Theresa May to not recognise this.
Age, wealth, social class and health are other important factors, insofar as the older, poorer and less socially mobile vote went, but most crucially in terms of access to the internet. This demographic relies on newspapers and TV news. The BBC is successful in limiting any potential biases its journalists might have, and presents both sides. Combine this with a heavily pro-Tory press, however, and you condition the already-sympathetic voters of this demographic to vote Conservative, regardless of whether their policies actually benefitted these voters.
The next election may be months away, or it could be five years away. Whilst the Conservatives may not want to think about it, they must consider why they lost the youth vote, the middle class and every other social group apart from C2DEs.
If they want to reach out to a youthful and affluent middle-class voter demographic, they have to use the best tools available. That means using the internet. To butcher a quote by Einstein, we did not know with what electoral weapons the last general election would be fought, but the next one will be fought with tweets and shares.