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26 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:46pm

The Tories are intent on winning the digital culture war. Can Labour upset the odds?

If Labour is to make a comeback in this election campaign, it will need to build on the strengths of its 2017 social media strategy.

By Paolo Gerbaudo

“Had my benefits taken away. Work two jobs and I am still barely able to make the rent every month.” The message, written on a piece of paper and stuck to a bus stop, was the first of many to appear on Twitter. Hundreds of similar posts were recently shared, tagged with the phrase: “#ToryStory”.

#ToryStory is the kind of home-grown digital activism that the Labour Party desperately needs if it is to make a comeback in a profoundly difficult election campaign. The grassroots campaign has a simple, coherent purpose: to demonstrate the disastrous effects of nine years of Conservative government on the people facing in-work poverty, benefits cuts, mounting student debt and homelessness.

The Conservatives are far ahead in the polls and outspending Labour on Facebook ads. Boris Johnson’s bumbling persona and blustering theatrics make for easily memeable social media content. Party strategist Dominic Cummings seems determined to own the digital battleground, and the party has already churned out slick, shareable videos and memes, using language that is far more adversarial than in 2017. Elsewhere, the Conservatives have been criticised for their deceitful digital tactics – during the ITV leaders’ debate, the official Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ Twitter account temporarily posed as an independent fact-checking service. When it comes to the digital culture war, the Tories seem intent on winning.

But the social media battlefield is also where the Tories face significant threats, particularly if Labour manages to build on the strengths of its 2017 election campaign. The party’s surprise comeback – it managed to obtain 40 per cent of the votes having begun the campaign 20 points behind – was largely premised on its ability to outgun the Tories on social media. 

On Facebook, the user engagement with Jeremy Corbyn’s personal Facebook page exceeded Theresa May’s eight times over. The Conservatives mounted an uninspired digital campaign that painted a dark and unappealing picture of the future, focussing on Brexit, security and terrorism, and reiterating May’s lifeless mantra of “strong and stable leadership”. In contrast, Labour’s 2017 strategy used optimistic messaging that resulted in high levels of Facebook engagement. Among the party’s most repeated terms were “NHS”, “rights”, “jobs”, “workers”, “support” and “services”.

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Equally important were Labour’s grassroots social media campaigns. Some of the most viewed videos on social media originated from the activist group Momentum, which also provided continuous Twitter coverage, and helped mobilise thousands of local activists. The group’s “My Nearest Marginal” app was used by 100,000 canvassers, while Politico reported that one of its many campaign videos, “Dad, do you hate me?”, reached 14 million people on social media.

Has the party replicated its digital success in this election? Momentum activists have launched a “digital army”: a network of WhatsApp groups where content and events will be shared in the hope they go viral. The pressure group has launched new apps, including one that will help students register to vote. Beyond Momentum, a vibrant ecosystem of alternative outlets like Novara media have further bolstered Labour’s message and highlighted Tory blunders – from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments on the Grenfell tragedy to party chairman James Cleverly’s no-show on Sky News. Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats and Greens are hoping to fire up their young digital activists – as is the Brexit Party, which has rapidly accrued a substantial social media following and is using effective internet memes and short videos to communicate its proposals.

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The lack of strong support organisations and unofficial activist networks is a major weakness for the Tories. Some 56 per cent of the Conservative membership is aged over 55. The Young Conservatives (UK) was only founded in 2018, and the number of its members is unknown. Meanwhile, the UK offshoot of US right-wing student movement Turning Point, is an astroturf campaign that is no match for its leftist counterpart – either in membership numbers, or social media reach.

The Tories also lack support in digital subcultures, meme groups, online forums and other informal channels of political critique and propaganda. On the other side of the Atlantic, alt-right forums overflow with Trump supporters. Though Johnson has embraced elements of his US ally’s style, extolling a vision of making Britain great again, he lacks the adoring base of digital followers that Trump enjoys.

Some might say this doesn’t matter – the digital solidarity of “slacktivists” is no guarantee that support will be reflected at the polls. Scholars are divided over whether online support translates into votes. Yet growing evidence suggests social media, like other campaigning, can play a role in electoral outcomes. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute found politicians with Twitter accounts received a higher share of the vote in the 2017 election. Social media activity among young people can also catalyse offline protests. Moreover, digital campaigns can enthuse – or dissuade – people to vote; indeed, Trump’s digital strategists in the 2017 election targeted Democrats with negative ads aimed at suppressing turnout.

Aware of this potential, the Conservatives are likely to deploy more daring social media tactics than in 2017. But they’re still right to be worried about Corbyn’s online campaigners. The Conservatives do not enjoy the enthusiastic grassroots support of other right-wing populists such as Trump, Salvini or the Brexit Party in the UK, or alt-right support on forums like 4chan. Despite Johnson’s populist rhetoric, the Conservatives are still perceived as the party of the establishment; not a party that seeks to subvert the status quo, but to defend it. If Labour is to defy the odds stacked against it at this election, it must double down on grassroots social media campaigns that drive home its message among young voters.

Paolo Gerbaudo is director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy (2018). He tweets @paologerbaudo