Battleground for young UK voters moves online

Micro-targeting with vast quantities of poor quality graphics and videos a feature of election

If you were a resident of the London constituency of Lewisham East you likely voted Remain in the 2016 EU membership referendum. So the Conservative candidate for this month's election – Sam Thurgood – may have sent you one of his campaign leaflets that contains just one reference to Brexit.

If you happened to be a voter in the Welsh constituency of Bridgend, however, you may be among the 54.6 per cent who voted Leave in 2016. The Conservative candidate here – Jamie Wallis – has accordingly made Brexit the focal point of his campaign literature.

This isn’t anything new. It makes sense to target voters with messages designed to appeal, specifically, to them. In London, where nearly 60 per cent of the electorate backed Remain, the Tories may struggle to motivate those same voters with a message about “getting Brexit done”. Instead, Thurgood’s leaflet majored on the economy and public spending.

The same thing happens online. Political parties – through a process known as micro-targeting – direct bespoke advertisements on Facebook to particular groups. For example, in Scotland the Conservatives are focusing on their unionist credentials in online advertisements.


The parties clearly understand that these tactics shift votes: Facebook advertising has become a key spending area for all parties in recent election campaigns.

Last week the Conservatives are estimated to have spent between £15,000 and £33,513 (€17,600-€39,320) on Facebook advertising, while Labour spent between £65,200 and £78,688. Political campaigning groups also participate, with Best for Britain, a pro-EU lobby group, disseminating eight new advertisements on Facebook, and Momentum, a grassroots Labour movement, placing about 12, according to data compiled by . (Data from WIRED Wired UK in collaboration with CrossCheck.

Facebook, however, isn’t where most young people spend their time on the internet. For the Conservatives, whose target voters tend to be older, that may not matter so much. But for Labour, whose traditional voter base is younger than the Conservatives’, it’s crucial to reach these potential voters via social media outside of Facebook.

This year there are about 14.5 million Snapchat users in the UK. And Labour, as reported by the Guardian, is outspending the Conservatives on the platform by a multiple of about five.

In using Snapchat these parties are accessing a younger audience and speaking to them in a medium they are familiar with.

But while Labour is focusing on Snapchat, it doesn’t seem to have cracked all the best strategies for motivating a younger voter base. In other respects, it is the Tories who are the online pioneers.


Following the 2017 election, in which Labour was declared the victor of the digital campaign war, the Conservative party understood it needed to rethink its strategy. It hired Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, following the pair's success in in helping Australia's Liberal/National right-wing coalition beat the odds and hold on to power.

Topham and Guerin’s main tactic involves using intentionally poor quality graphics, memes and videos to generate attention and interactions online. There are plenty of good reasons to deploy this style of advertising – often referred to as “sh*t-posting.”

Charlie Palmer, a strategist at London advertising agency Uncommon, explains the strategy comes down to a "trade-off between quality and quantity", with the parties realising that flooding the internet with as much content as possible is crucial to keeping parties in the minds of voters.

"Churning out well-produced stuff is expensive and time consuming," he says. "While a beautifully made, polished video can blow everything out of the water – think Bernie Sanders's recent video in the US – UK politicians haven't really got a handle on how to do that well enough yet," he says, referring to a slick campaign video independently-produced for the Democratic senator seeking to run for the White House.

By deploying a strategy of producing less sophisticated content, Palmer explains, the Tories are speaking to young voters the way that young voters already speak to each other online.

Sarah Manavis, digital-culture writer at the New Statesman, agrees. She says the parties are finally starting to realise that glossy content, while nice to look at, it not necessarily all that effective as a messaging tool. "It's the difference between really flowery and really clear-cut writing", there's value in both but one gets the point across better.

But social media has more value than simply as a conduit for top down, paid and targeted advertisements. In this election more than ever we are seeing organic content from independent campaign groups, and individual political influencers generating more and more attention online.

Owen Jones, a Guardian journalist with just over 920,000 followers on Twitter, and Ash Sarkar, who has 209,000 followers on the same platform, are both Labour campaigners. And while the left boasts more influential figures like these than the right, there are Tory online activists too. Emily Hewertson, a 19-year-old student at King's College, London, came to fame through a clip of her on BBC's Question Time declaring she would vote for the Brexit Party in last May's European Parliament elections.

“You can’t discount the influence these people have,” Manavis says. “You have an election this year where some of the majorities are only two votes.”

Manavis says the impact made by someone like Hewertson arises partly from the fact that she "looks like a normal person". For young, potentially first-time voters, who have never been politically engaged, seeing a young person they can identify with espouse a view on Twitter or Youtube or Instagram could be just enough to tip the balance.


Palmer says consumers, and voters, behave far less logically than a lot of politicians realise. “We do things people like us do, most of the time,” he says – and it could be in this that these online activists make their biggest mark.

It is not just activists who are helping to motivate voters. On the day Grime artist Stormzy told his 1.26 million Twitter followers to register to vote, voter registration spiked by 236 per cent, with some 150,000 of those registering being under the age of 25.

The actual impact of all of this, of course, is notoriously difficult to quantify. While Facebook tends to dominate the narrative when it comes to online political campaigning, new technology is beginning to get a look in. While the video sharing app Tik Tok (with one billion global users) has not been a hotbed of political content this election cycle, Manavis jokes that the next time round she would bet on several MPs and parties running their own Tik Tok accounts – in another bid to keep up with the times, and continue to follow the online electorate to wherever they’re headed next.