Hope springs eternal – at least on social media

Social media didn’t decide the election so can it sow the seeds of political recovery? Lib Dems are hopeful.

Social media didn’t decide the election so can it sow the seeds of political recovery? Lib Dems are hopeful.

Left-of-centre political parties are shaking off their crushing defeat in the General Election by taking to social media to pursue a digitally driven recovery from the grassroots. Liberal Democrats, whose parliamentary party was decimated in the 7 May vote, are proving most aggressive in their social media mission to recruit new members after suffering their worst results in almost half a century.

Lib Dem community managers are pumping out scores of posts per day across their social channels, proactively engaging and reaching out to voters with upbeat and often personalised social content.

Between 7 and 11 May a new member joined the Liberal Democrats every 39 seconds according to the party’s Facebook page. At a local level, they’re arranging new community meetings to come together offline too. Topping 55,000 members – including 10,000 new recruits (full disclosure – myself included) – in under a week must provide some salve to battered Lib Dem souls.

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Image source: @libdems

Too much, too late?

By comparison Labour is proving relatively quiet. While they are using social channels to welcome new joiners – an impressive 20,000 new Labour members and counting – communications on social appear more fragmented. While Lib Dem supporter networks have sprung into action, albeit belatedly, Labour Digital – “a Grassroots Network of Labour supporters working in tech” – has been eerily silent since polling day. Mentions of the #LibDemFightback on Twitter are approaching 15,000 while on Facebook and in member communications they appear to be applying a micro-targeting strategy akin to that of Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby. Member acquisition is on the up as are public declarations of support for the underdog. While Lib Dems cannot give the “heart” to the Conservatives or the “brain” to Labour their manifesto promised – to continue the Wizard of Oz analogy – the party and their supporters on social media are showing a newfound courage in defeat to speak out.

The party has launched a social media amplification campaign with Thunderclap for members to declare their support en masse across their personal channels. There is an urgent need to grow their support base, not least to pay the £167,500 bill racked up in lost constituency deposits. Unless new members have been exceedingly generous (suggested donation £70, but only a pound for young people and students) the party is unlikely to have covered that shortfall. And while necessity may be the mother of invention,there is a danger this tsunami of communication may begin to smack of desperation, provoking fatigue among new recruits.

Escaping the echo chamber

Polling companies have taken a battering for getting the results of Thursday’s vote so wrong. Social media hasn’t fared much better. Twitter mentions alone in 2010 heralded a Lib Dem landslide and, while more rounded, 2015 results indicated that social media still needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as our video predicted.

Healthy debate and a new sense of determination quickly emerging from a battered opposition is encouraging for our democracy. Likewise it is encouraging to see new, highly active social media communities springing up spontaneously around political discussion. Among them a private Facebook Group descriptively named “Amazing Lefty Women Try To Think Of Ways To Make Things Better” has grown a vocal membership exceeding 22,000 through friend referrals alone in less than a week.

But however hopeful or reassuring these emerging forms of support groups can prove to wounded voters – and parties – we need to heed the echo chamber. Misleading polls were not the only thing that made Thursday’s election result so astonishing. Many on the left of British politics, including Labour strategists, had come to believe that a swathe, if not a majority, of voters shared their world view. Regrouping, rethinking, tweeting and meeting are only part of the process. To shift perceptions they must go out and engage with those who decisively demonstrated last week that this was simply not the case.