Social media transparency data is giving real time insight on party strategy at #GE2019

The upcoming general election is the first general election in the UK where social media companies are publishing transparency data, showing which political advertisements are being displayed on the platforms, who is paying for them, and the amounts being spent.

Facebook is, by far, the largest platform for social media political advertisements in the UK. In the first full week of the campaign to the 4th of November, there was £175k of spending on campaign related advertisements on the platform, the overwhelming majority of which (99%) was by campaigns associated with the three major parties in Great Britain (the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats). Facebook do not itemise campaign spend for campaigns that spent less than £100, so these campaigns have been excluded from analysis.

The Labour Party were the only party to run a campaign on Snapchat, spending US$9,999 (£7,827) on a campaign that ran from the 30th of October to the 7th of November. On Google’s platforms only Labour (who spent somewhere between £650 and £26,650) and the Brexit Party (between £50 and £1,200) have ran ads since the start of the campaign. Twitter no longer accepts political advertising.

On Facebook, the official Labour Party page spent the most on advertisements in the first week of the campaign, spending £54,246. The Conservative Party were second with £33,466, with the Lib Dems trailing just behind on £32,980.

However, the official campaign pages don’t tell the entire story. Candidates in individual constituencies also ran advertisements, and when these are included Labour spending for the week rises to £74,058, with the Conservatives on £54,396 and the Liberal Democrats on £44,358.

The Brexit Party, who ran a significant amount of ads on Facebook in the run-up to this year’s European election, are conspicuous by their absence; the total spend associated with the party with campaigns exceeding £100 was £391. The Alliance Party (£197) and Plaid Cymru (£796) also had active campaigns. None of the SNP adverts exceeded £100 in spend for the week, and Northern Ireland unionist parties were entirely absent from the platform.

Constituency spending data is interesting because it gives clues as to what the various parties consider to be strategically important races. There was £40,023 spent during the week on campaigns associated with an individual constituency; £16.7k for the Tories, £13.8 by Labour, £8.5k by the Liberal Democrats and £939 by independent candidates.

The Liberal Democrats are running the most aggressive campaign, with 98.7% of their spend being in 18 constituencies where they are not the incumbent. All of these campaigns are in the four regions of the south of England. The constituencies they are targeting are:

  • East of England: Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire, Watford
  • London: Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Ealing Central and Acton, Kensington, Sutton and Cheam, Wimbledon
  • South East: Eastleigh, Esher and Walton, Guildford, Romsey And Southampton North, Spelthorne, Winchester, Wokingham
  • South West: Bath, Cheltenham, North Dorset, North Somerset

By comparison, the other main parties are running a more defensive campaign on Facebook, with 59% of spend by Conservatives being in seats where they are the incumbent, and 74% of Labour’s spend being in areas where they are the incumbent.

Of the UK regions, the North East is the region that Labour are spending the most on (£3,005), with the Stockton South constituency, which Labour won from the Conservatives in 2017, and where they are defending a majority of 888 seeing the highest spend (£1,549). In fact, it is constituencies like these, which the Conservatives won in 2015 and Labour won in 2017, where they appear to be concentrating on, such as Ipswich and Brighton, Kemptown.

Despite the fact that 74% of Labour’s constituency related spend on Facebook ads were in seats where they are defending, Labour appears to be running quite an aggressive campaign. They are concentrating resources on seats that they won narrowly from the Conservatives, as well as targeting the Conservatives in traditional Labour/Tory bellwether seats such as Harlow and Loughborough. In other words, they are fighting their campaign as if they believe that they have a genuine chance of victory, rather than running a campaign aimed at avoiding wipeout.

For the Conservatives, London is the region where they have the largest constituency associated spend, belying the fact that they are both vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats and may have the opportunity to sneak through the middle in constituencies where there is a significant Labour to Lib Dem swing. Marcus Fysh’s Yeovil seat saw a considerable amount of activity, and this is the sort of seat in the South West where they are vulnerable to a challenge from the Liberal Democrats.

Labour’s advertisements were particularly prominent on Snapchat during the first week of the campaign, with 10.3m impressions for their campaign that ran from the 30th of October to the 7th of November. Unlike with Facebook data, it is possible to see the precise constituencies being targeted on Snapchat campaigns because Snapchat publish the targeted postcode sector (e.g.  SW11 1XX, Battersea).

There were 266 constituencies targeted in the Snapchat campaign; 111 seats where Labour are defending the seat, 126 where the Conservatives are defending, 4 Lib Dem seats and 25 where the SNP or Plaid Cymru are defending. The geographical spread of the constituencies suggests they are making the least effort in the South East and South West (25% and 27% of constituencies respectively were in the Snapchat campaign).

The constituencies being targeted in the Snapchat campaign appeared to suggest that they were concentrating on constituencies where there is a sizable youth vote. This makes sense from Labour’s perspective; according to YouGov 63% of voters aged 18-24 backed Labour at the last election, and Snapchat is the largest social network amongst this age group. There are 2.4m voters aged between 18 and 20 who won’t have been able to vote at the last election, and maximizing turnout in this group will be vital if Labour are to have a chance at being in government in the next parliament.

It is also worth noting that Labour’s messaging varies by region. For example, Labour ran an ad on Google saying “Let the people have the final say on Brexit”, but the advert was only displayed to voters in London and Scotland.

Whilst it is early days in this general election campaign, even at this early stage the data provided by social media companies has given some insights into party strategy.

  • Labour are playing a much more aggressive strategy than their polling deficit with the Conservatives would suggest; they are concentrating their defensive efforts on seats that they won narrowly from the Conservatives in 2017, and are going on the offensive in traditional Tory/Labour marginal seats
  • Labour are strongly targeting the youth vote, and are presenting themselves in a more anti-Brexit light in London and Scotland than they are in the rest of the country
  • The Liberal Democrats are focussed on winning seats from the Conservatives in the South of England, and excluding London and seats where they have a sitting MP, Labour may be quietly focussing their attention elsewhere
  • Neither the SNP nor the Brexit Party have bothered with social media advertising so far at this election

If other social media companies follow Twitter’s lead and ban political advertisements from their platforms, then it may not be possible to follow future election campaigns in such forensic detail. In the meantime, the transparency data is providing an unprecedented opportunity to track the tactics and strategies of political parties during an election campaign in real time.

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