UK election: It was Facebook wot won it. Maybe.

Labour Party spent more money on social media marketing than it did two years ago

The British Labour Party’s page on Facebook.

A day is a long time in social media.

On Thursday, it was an echo chamber - an irrelevant sideshow to the “ground war” on the doorsteps.

On Friday, it is Facebook wot won it. Maybe.

We know two things: Labour did better than expected in the UK general election, although it did not win it, and Labour spent more money on social media marketing than it did two years ago.


The Labour of 2015 courted the YouTube demographic by forcing Ed Miliband to have game but awkward conversations with dazed vloggers, but it spent very little on Facebook advertising - just £16,500 compared to the Conservatives' £1.2 million.

It didn’t make the same mistake twice. The official spending figures for this election are not yet in, but Labour insiders told the Daily Mirror in April that it planned to spend a magic £1 million on Facebook.

It is never easy to prove the effectiveness of any advertising campaign, but it seems reasonable to say that the decision to copy the Conservative tactics that helped David Cameron to a surprise majority in 2015 didn't do Labour any harm.

‘Not the nasty party’

Buoyed by its left-wing grassroots, Labour’s overarching message of the campaign was that it was “for the many, not the few”, which translated roughly as “we are not the nasty party”.

Both the harshness of Conservative austerity policies such as cuts to school lunches and the illogic of Theresa May’s hard-Brexit grandstanding were being attacked by vocal anti-Tory social media users even before Labour’s paid messages could ram home the point.

Social media marketing has two defining features. It is reactive, allowing political parties to swiftly capitalise and amplify slip-ups such as May’s U-turn on social care, and it is targeted. For this election, Labour created a digital tool called Promote that used both its own voter database and social media company data to send tailored messages to particular groups.

This wasn't just about making sure to reach younger people who might lean Labour and admire Jeremy Corbyn, but not be guaranteed to vote. Labour's joint national elections coordinator Andrew Gwynne earlier cited the example of so-called "Waspi" women born in the 1950s whose state pension age has changed, telling the Guardian that the party would use social media targeting to make sure this group was aware of Labour's manifesto promise to introduce compensatory tax credits.


Social media targeting, now a common political strategy, has raised some concerns about transparency on the campaign trail. The UK has strict rules on election spending, while the practice, growing ever more sophisticated, makes independent scrutiny of party messages more difficult and heightens the risk that fake claims go unchecked. In a bid to “throw some light on dark ads” during this campaign, political experts developed free software called Who Targets Me? Voters could, if they wanted to, use it to track who was targeting them.

Targeted advertising is unlikely to go away in future elections. One interesting question posed is whether this method of campaigning is a symptom or a cause of political polarisation.

That social media acts daily as a petri dish for both regressive and progressive politics suggests that no party can be complacent about their ability to exploit it to harness support.

Labour may have simply run a relatively better campaign than it did in 2015, while in an act of catastrophic tone-deafness, the Conservatives failed to adjust from vapid and arrogant “Maybot” mantras that were too easily mocked.


The good news for Labour is that the hostility of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express appears to have been rejected, by younger voters in particular, and may even have helped rally support for the much-maligned Corbyn.

Overall turnout is projected to have risen to 69 per cent, up from 66 per cent in 2015, although a statistic widely reported on Friday morning that turnout among the 18-24 year-old group had rocketed to 72 per cent is “fake news”. (The demographic breakdown of turnout won’t be available until next week.)

The sense that more was at stake this time, in light of the Brexit referendum, is likely to have been a bigger influence on turnout than social media tactics.

The desire of some voters to punish the Conservatives, rather than reward Labour, will also have been a factor: one common Twitter reaction to Thursday night’s hung parliament exit poll prediction was “hahahahaha”.