Before the election, odes were sung to the Conservatives’ digital prowess. Behavioural modeling and microtargeting: it didn’t come more bleeding edge than this.
Alas, the Tory online campaign popped like the first dotcom bubble. All that hype, just for a hung parliament.
Now, according to commentators, the emperors of the email list over at CCHQ are found to have no clothes. Instead, the back-to-basics online activism of the Corbynites – so 2008 – carried the day.
There’s some truth in this view, but not enough.
Labour’s online surge was real – and, crucially, it came from the grassroots. Jamie Bartlett, the author of Radicals, says: “You had huge amounts of actual activists online all the time, constantly sharing pro Corbyn stories, which essentially puts out the same material in front of social media users but more organically and more authentically.”
Well, waddyaknow: on Facebook, we prefer posts from real people rather than brands.
Overwhelming online activity has been a feature of Corbyn’s support since he ran for the leadership. This was the first time it was unleashed upon the general public, via social media, and it worked.
There isn’t a single digital strategy that delivers an election: there are lots of techniques. The problem with this general election is that no campaign managed to put all those digital pieces together.
Those pro-Corbyn stories often came from what Jim Waterson, Buzzfeed’s political editor, has identified as the “alt-left” media: sites including the Canary, Evolve Politics and Another Angry Voice that were consistently more popular on social media than the traditional media.
Central to leftish publishers and supporters alike was the perception that the mainstream media was biased. (And they had a point. The biggest selling newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Mail, dedicated front page after front page to attacks on Corbyn.) According to the editor of Another Angry Voice, posts criticising the BBC were his site’s best performing articles.
That might remind you of Donald Trump. It should – the alt-left owes its name to the alt-right that was important to Trump’s victory. “In part, it’s the insurgents, it’s the rebellious outsider groups that have an advantage,” Bartlett says.
This isn’t about younger people being more savvy than older, or the left being more digitally native than the right: it’s about a philosophy of dissidence that thrives on Facebook, whatever the demographic or ideology. Witness how Britain First built a similar Facebook following, from the far right.
The perceived bias of the mainstream media motivates people to create their own content. “Both Corbyn and Trump supporters had exactly the same view on mainstream media – they were liars, they were biased,” Bartlett says. “So they took to social media a lot earlier and with a lot more vigour than anyone else.”
That online surge worked – it helped drive Labour to exactly 40% of the general vote. But it wasn’t enough. I don’t want to be too pedantic here, but Labour didn’t actually win.
Compare with Trump. He surfed the alt-right wave, as Corbyn surfed the alt-left, but Trump also applied microtargeting on top, working with Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data analytics firm. That won Trump the 70,000 votes that delivered him the electoral college.
Labour took only 2% less of the vote than the Conservatives, but ended up with 8% less of the total seats in Parliament. Its largest swing since 1945 yielded only 30 more seats. Or compare it to the hyper-targeted 2015 Tory campaign, where they won 4% less of the general vote than Labour did this year, but 68 more seats. Labour needed only 50,000-odd votes to win a majority, but they couldn’t target them.
When the support is bottom-up and grassroots, it’s harder to direct effectively at particular seats.
What were the Tories doing while all this was happening? They had the targeting, but neither the positive message, nor the viral activism.
According to Who Targets Me founder Sam Jeffers, who tracked targeted Facebook ads during the election, the Conservatives were much more focussed in their targeting than either Labour or Lib Dem.
Too focussed, perhaps? Theresa May’s aide Nick Timothy, in his spectacularly unapologetic resignation statement, said the Tory campaign “failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.”
Yeah, but also, not really, pal. The Conservatives saw the surge. It’s why they ran defensive Facebook adverts in previously safe seats like Kensington in the last week of the campaign. Labour’s victory there took everyone else by surprise, but not the Tories. The same week, Labour were running ads highlighting the dementia tax – a much bigger Tory mistake than using microtargeting.
The real problem, as Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica told me, is this: “Politicians today in the light of what’s happened with Trump, with Brexit, are still making decisions based on polling data without fully understanding the motivation of the electorate.”
More broadly, the Conservatives flooded Facebook with attack adverts. Three very negative campaigns – Project Fear in the Brexit referendum; the vaguely racist anti-Sadiq Khan effort in the London mayoral elections and the relentlessly negative focus on Corbyn’s security record in this election – have all now backfired online.
Facebook isn’t very suited to negativity – there’s a reason why, for years, the only button was ‘like’.
We have no need of a new narrative here. The Conservatives are not suddenly rubbish digital campaigners. Nor are mooney-eyed activists reposting dank memes the only way to win future elections.
There isn’t a single digital strategy that delivers an election: there are lots of techniques.
The problem with this general election is that no campaign managed to put all those digital pieces together.
And so nobody won.