Inside the social media echo chamber, the election result reverberated

PushON | May 8th 2015

It was one of those defining moments you sometimes get on Twitter. Shortly after 10 p.m. on 7 May 2015, the results of the exit poll commissioned by the BBC, ITV and Sky News were released. It showed the Conservatives were about ten seats short of an overall majority (316), with Labour languishing on 239. The big gainers were the SNP (up to 58) and there was no doubting the most significant loser, the Liberal Democrats, current coalition partners and the party of the deputy PM, whose 57 seats from 2010 appeared to be slashed to 10.

For a minute or two, the sense of shock actually changed the appearance of Twitter; my TweetDeck Home column turned black, as swaths of people tweeted single-word utterances of disbelief (most of which are unrepeatable on a family blog).

For context, we have to look at the polls leading up to the election, and indeed further back. Because since parliament dissolved, the two main parties were neck and neck, and remained tied for months at around 30% each. Pre-election debate was all about whether Labour would form a coalition with the SNP and the LibDems, and how hard it would be for the Tories to make a majority stick. So the shock was real.

But focusing on the black stream flowing down my screen, the driftwood wasn’t an equal mix of yippees and oh-noes. It was very much of the latter variety. Things turned a little more optimistic an hour later when other exit polls and re-contact surveys seemed to point to the results anticipated by the pre-election polls. We know now that if anything, the BBC exit poll underplayed the Conservatives’ chances.

But the reaction on social media has raised an interesting issue. At our Monday meeting, all of the marketing team reported the same experiences on Twitter and Facebook. Considering we’re all connected with different people and that we tend to associate with the usual mix of friends, marketing bods, celebrities, sportspeople, the odd politico and a bunch of randoms, that’s quite a thing. Essentially, social media seems to be predominantly left-leaning.

Demographics might play a part in this. According to Kantar and TNS Omnibus survey covered in Adweek, use of all the social media drops with age.

Facebook is used by 91% of 18–24-year olds, 82% of 25–34-year-olds and 76% of 35–44-year-olds, all above the average use of 56%.

Twitter is used by 64% of 18–24-year-olds, 41% of 25–34-year-olds and 32% of 35–44-year-olds, again all above the average of 26%. In fact Twitter is used by only 3% of over-65s, an age group that is traditionally the most likely to vote.

So judging by the demographics of the main social networks and the response to the exit poll, should we be able to correlate strong leftish bias in young people’s voting intentions? Not especially, according to a Guardian piece from last week.

Of 3.3 million first-time voters, only 41% intended to exercise their right. Of those, 35% supported Labour, 30% supported the Conservatives and just 9.4% said they would vote LibDem. With 14.4% opting for Green and 7.9% supporting UKIP, it’s fair to say that roughly 60% of young people support parties associated with leftish politics and close to 40% would place themselves right of centre.

This is hardly a massive enough leaning to dominate social media during an outburst of political emotion. You’d expect every three sighs to be greeted with two high fives (assuming UKIP supporters would prefer Cameron to Miliband, which might not be the case).

Maybe social media genuinely does have a red glean to it (or a blue one in the US, where Obama dominated the last two social media battlegrounds). Two possible reasons could be:

  • the fact that Labour were in opposition; and
  • the dominance of the right in the traditional media.

The Opposition Factor

It’s much easier to argue against something that is happening than against something that might happen. Incumbent parties have to defend their records against facts on the ground and against the inevitable downsides of their policies. But all they can do about potential opposition policy decisions is speculate about supposed downsides. If people personally affected by policies take to social media to protest and rally the opposition, they can become numerous.

The Media

The British media, especially the press, is undoubtedly broadly right-leaning, and always has been apart from a brief spell when the press threw its weight behind Tony Blair. The Telegraph, the Mail, the Times, the FT and the Independent all backed Cameron, while the Express backed UKIP (and its owner donated heavily to the party). Only the Guardian and the Mirror supported Miliband.

In the run-up to the election, the right-wing press made multiple personal attacks on Miliband, the Mail even going as far as claiming his dead father hated Britain.

The Telegraph published a letter from 5,000 businesses warning against a Labour government. Despite the letter being revealed as a product of Conservative Campaign HQ, multiple names being listed twice and some of those listed requesting their names be removed, the story got second billing on the BBC news channels behind the Nepalese earthquake.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine left-leaning voters trusting social media – despite all its gossip, speculation and trolling – and treating it as “their” news outlet, and the mainstream media as “the right’s”.

In a way it’s perfect. No money is required and ideas can be openly shared and debated. Plus it’s multimedia and allows links to the online realm.

On the downside, it can be something of an echo chamber, with affirmation from the converted being overvalued, when the real goal is fresh converts. This does appear to have happened in 2015. The polls were being shared and they gave Labour supporter in particular reason to be cautiously optimistic, at least at the prospect of a Labour-dominated hung parliament.

So when that 10 p.m. exit poll dropped into the echo chamber, the mood – like my Twitter feed – turned black.

And About those Polls …

Yeah, what about all the polls running up to the election? How could they have been so wrong?

First of all, if we look at the share of votes cast, we see that the Conservatives polled 36.9% against Labour’s 30.5%. While the Tories undoubtedly won, the raw figures don’t take our constituency-based system into account – we can safely say this as the Tories won just over 50% of seats.

But the pollsters were supposed to take all that into account. A Fascinating admission came on Friday morning from Damian Lyons Lowe of pollsters Survation, who say their last poll mirrored the BBC exit poll but they chickened out of publishing it (his words) because it looked like an outlier. They could have basked in rather a lot of glory had they called the election.  It looks like a lot of us will be learning lessons from 7 May 2015.