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2 December 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:21am

On Facebook, Jeremy Corbyn is getting all the attention

By Chris Stokel-Walker

On the social media battleground of this election, the leaders of the two main parties are having a far bigger impact than the groupings they represent. While Jeremy Corbyn is far ahead of his rival Boris Johnson in terms of engagement, both leaders are having more impact than the official channels of their respective parties.

In the last month, according to data collected by social monitoring firm Crowdtangle and accessed on Sunday night, Corbyn has had more interactions with his Facebook posts (4.8 million) than all of 14 main parties combined (from Labour and the Tories all the way down to the lowly Alliance Party and the Independent Group for Change). Corbyn’s page on the social network also has more fans than the entirety of Labour – which may perhaps have contributed to his unwillingness to bow to any curbs that the party has tried to put on him in the last four years.

This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it one limited to online debate: since the advent of pre-election TV debates in the run-up to the 2010 general election, commentators have wrung their hands about the focus on politics of the individual above party values. 

In Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a larger-than-life character, while since his election as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has shown himself resilient to successive attempts to unseat him thanks to a committed fanbase outside the party apparatus – the same people who carried him to the leadership. “We call it the personalisation of politics, but some people term it presidentialism,” explains Tristan Hotham, a PhD researcher at the University of Bath.

Corbyn is a social media monolith: as well as his social media team sending out more than 11 posts per day on his Facebook page, he dominates the discourse on the platform. Of all the interactions, comments and shares received by UK politicians on the platform, 43 per cent were garnered by Corbyn’s account – double the share of his nearest competitor, Boris Johnson (who puts out a similar number of posts). It is worth noting that Corbyn’s pre-eminence on social media has dulled a bit since the last election, when he faced Theresa May in the battle for Facebook. Back then, he drove engagement at a rate of five or six times more than Theresa May, compared to the two-times advantage he has over Johnson. He and Labour have also spent more on online advertising than Johnson and the Conservatives so far this election campaign, which is likely to have driven some engagement with his ordinary posts.

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Yet still Corbyn is a key part of what Hotham calls Labour’s trident attack on social media:

“They have the Labour Party page, which is where all their targeted advertising comes from,” he says. “That’s very policy-oriented, very professional. It uses clear, simple messages and is designed to get policy out there.” It’s like an election leaflet in digital form, with all the drudgery that entails.

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Corbyn’s personal page – which is where the majority of the content is viewed – is about him and his policy, a halfway house between the staid official page and the personality-led politics he’s trying to harness the power of. The third bit of the trident is fan pages, of which Momentum’s digital presence is a massive driver of engagement.

Those three support and feed from each other, mustering up support or outrage as needed. It’s something Boris Johnson can match in kind – albeit at a smaller scale – with the official Conservative Facebook page and unofficial but allied pages like Leave.EU, which will pull together to support him when needed.

But what Johnson can’t count on is the support of his cabinet colleagues or MPs – and we’re not just talking about offline. Seven of the ten most engaged-with profiles of politicians on Facebook are Labour MPs, which account for 691,000 engagements, on top of Corbyn’s 4.7 million in the last month. Dennis Skinner’s near-120,000Facebook fans can be pulled in to fight for the cause online if needed, making the 87-year-old the seventh-most influential British politician on the platform in the last month.

Mansfield MP Ben Bradley is Johnson’s most reliable supporter on Facebook, driving 54,000 engagements from his near 10,000 followers on Facebook – but that’s nothing compared to what the Facebook followings of Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon, Laura Pidcock and John McDonnell can co-opt for the Labour cause. “The use of the other outriders is to energise the base,” says Hotham. They can do the heavy lifting, and send out messages that Corbyn and Labour want to keep off their Facebook pages for fear of alienating more centrist Labour voters who keep tabs on the party through Facebook.

Yet there needs to be caution in considering it a cut-and-dry case that Labour has all the power on social media. “Though Labour may think it can reach far more people on Facebook given the combined fanbase across multiple politician’s pages, the actual amplification of their message will be far more limited than one might expect,” says Steven Buckley, who studies social media and politics at the University of East Anglia. “A good proportion of those who follow Angela Rayner’s Facebook page will also be following Corbyn’s and Labour’s.”

Plus, there’s another important caveat to bear in mind. Just because someone has engaged with a post on Facebook, it doesn’t mean they’ve done so positively. Around half of all interactions are negative – regardless of who you are.