Why Twitter doesn’t matter at all (in this election)

At the beginning of the campaign we weren’t really sure, but by last night it was blindly clear. Twitter, and social media generally, in this election campaign do not matter – not in the wider scheme of things at least.

The blizzard of tweets last night, 154,342 in all (up on the second debate but down on the first) were in the main anti Cameron in nature– Tweetminister’s sentiment score had it as Clegg 3.13 (-0.5), Brown 2.99 (-0.15), Cameron 2.96 (-0.22) #leadersdebate.

Clegg was the clear winner on Twitter and on Facebook and Brown it appeared to be agreed had done better. It was Clegg one; Brown two; and Cameron three.


But as the camera’s stopped rolling and drew away from the stage, and as the three awkwardly stepped forward, Cameron doing his prime ministerial hand on Clegg’s shoulder, and the polls started to come in the wider truth became quickly apparently.

There was a brief few minutes that Channel 4’s self selecting poll (easily won by Clegg) was eagerly retweeted, but online Tories like Craig Elder and Samuel Coates tweeted back to wait for the real polls. He wasn’t wrong.


Both YouGov, ICM, Angus Reid, ComRes and Populus polls told a different story.

Angus Reid: Cameron 37%, Clegg 30%, Brown 23%.
YouGov: Cameron 41%, Nick Clegg 32%, Gordon Brown 25%.
ComRes: Cameron 35%, Clegg 33%, Brown 26%
Populus: Cameron 38%, Clegg 38%, Brown 25%.
ICM: Cameron 35% Brown 29% Clegg 27%

Rory Sutherland tweeted “Yougov calls it for Cameron. Twittersphere dissolves in incomprehension – unable to believe that Twitter not representative of the UK.” I laughed as I read it, but it was an accurate assessment of what happened.

No one believed it. YouGov was the first one to go around. It does the Sun’s polling and is biased came a chorus of tweets (and it is the one poll that gave Cameron the biggest poll present), but then as Angus Reid and ComRes polls followed were also for Cameron as well. It was once as rumour, twice as fact and third time well that’s strike three and the umpire has called it. Then more polls and really it is time to move on.

On Twitter, on Facebook, and online generally the story was different, but its wider impact, its ability to affect the real world was and has been throughout wholly marginal.

Twitter has proved good copy for lazy and social media obsessed journalists (guilty of the latter for sure). Its fast reaction, its buzzy atmosphere, and variety of views is a treat for journalists with a story to file and deadlines to meet.

But beyond the media story, beyond Westminster, it isn’t the story.

That isn’t to say that it has not had an affect on this campaign and not had an impact as it has. It has proved a really useful tool for helping to organise supporters, rally activists and hopefully get the vote out. It has helped to galvanise and got people involved in politics in different ways. Its impact has been positive.

We’ve seen some innovation as well. Online phone banks, #hastag campaigns, online spoofing and use of video (everyone will remember Webcam and SamCam).

But it just hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened on Twitter and it hasn’t happened with social media in a wider sense and I think there is a pretty good reason for that: there just hasn’t been the candidate.

Not for Labour as Brown is just the wrong generation. Certain not for Cameron kitchen sink chats and all. That early start never led to embracing online. He is too schooled in the top down Tory politics, which has never been a democratized process and is the antithesis of social media. Cameron is the old media candidate and at heart an old media man and he their candidate.

Clegg, of course, of all of them has proved the digital winner. He has scored biggest online, won more friends, followers and C4 votes, but with him it doesn’t feel real. He appeared from nowhere, it was like he was there three weeks ago and three debates later it doesn’t feel real or completely authentic.

Clegg is the winner in that realm, but not I think really a digital candidate. That person, that candidate, just wasn’t here this time around. Maybe if he or she had have been it would have been a different online election story to the one that has played out.

Now we’ve had polls, we’ve had the tweets, it is pretty much only the voting that is left to do.

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    Blimey, are you feeling OK, Gordon? Or is your dismay at Labour’s fortunes (shared) colouring your view of everything?

    I think that social media is very important in this election, just not on its own.

    The thing about the Obama campaign is that TV debates have been going for 40 years in the US as has political TV advertising. So its effect on the web activity was scandalously under-valued and taken for granted. Because the TV debates are new for us in the UK we can better appreciate TV’s contribution. People wouldn’t have gone online to talk about Obama, sign-up for emails or donate if they hadn’t seen and heard Obama in person at a rally or on TV.

    TV is completely unsurpassed as a catalyst – or lead medium – for a load of reasons to do with scale and emotional impact, but social media is a fantastic complement to it, capturing, reflecting, scrutinising, extending or deepening what TV sparks off.

    I hope that this election does 2 things:
    a) stops journalistic hype over social media
    b) stops people thinking that Twitter and other social media are representative of the UK population. Twitter and other social media platforms are great at reaching some groups of influential people. But if you are only lisening to your customers – or voters – through it you will come a big cropper. You have to go to Rochdale, knock on doors and listen – properly.

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    I agree with your observations Gordon but there’s something else that’s surely crucial in understanding why the Lib Dems might be seen as the ‘digital winners’, and that’s the demographic of their most out-spoken followers. Liberal Democrat voters are, by and large and indeed by definition, liberal people – more willing to embrace digital and social media (a democratising force) and probably generally younger (certainly the average age will be younger than the Conservative one) and more facebook savvy. In short – I’d contend that the digital victory of the lib dems probably has almost nothing to do with Nick Clegg an that they’d probably still have won it if old Ming Campbell were still leader. They won it by dint of the way in which their supporters naturally chose to lend their voice in support – through social media. By the same token, older, more affluent and less digital savvy proud conservatives are more inclined to pitch placards on the road outside their houses on country lanes. Nothing to do with David Cameron or Conservative ‘strategy’, just the nature of the support base.

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    I’m feeling fine Tess thanks -:) It isn’t dismay at Labour’s fortune, i think social media has a really strong role to play, i did say that, but i don’t think it is an influencer.

    Yes the audience is different and is the results online, but i do think it is the candidate and that it is still too early.

    Much of the obama stuff is myth and re-invention. Old media buys and email were the biggest tools in the obama campaign although i do think in a very big market social media in the US played a more unifying role around Obama than it can play here.

    Matt interesting about “the digital victory of the lib dems probably has almost nothing to do with Nick Clegg “, but he did win big time in terms of attracting friends and followers.

  • The biggest problem for social media in this election has been the absence of a truly compelling message or narrative capable of inspiring a movement. Consequently, the TV debates have been the only thing, other than the occasional Rochdale cock-up, worth talking about.

    It is also a case that the role of social media in modern day political campaigns has been overstated. Obama’s was a victory for smart marketing (including a huge investment in TV advertising), rather than a victory for social media. What was forecast by some as ‘the first social media election’ has failed to match the over-inflated expectations of the social media evangelists.

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    I think to an extent it also comes down to the demographic which utilise Twitter, I do not believe it is a fair representation of the voting population and thus skews the result. As genY age and we see the first truly tech generation move towards retirement the impact of social media and its alignment with the opinion of the voting population will improve.

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    Martin I agree there was an element of over inflation and i agree with you point that “the absence of a truly compelling message or narrative capable of inspiring a movement”. I think that echoes my own point about the candidate. I think the candidate has to be there to provide that narratives and inspiration.

    Marge i think you are right there is a demographic issue with social media (although this is broadening all the time — facebook is a great example of that), but i think that could be changed if people were truly energised rather than praying for a hung parliament because a lot of people just are not sure and are hedging their bets.

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    I think you’re bang on Gordon. Without a personality and message that everyone believed in, it made it harder for a spectacularly obvious online social effect. But I feel your headline is a bit too harsh.

    Forget messaging from the parties. Twitter will be important in this election to the people that use it and found a useful message in among the tweets (as you do point out). But only as part of all the other messaging people are pulling together from different sources like a newspaper article, TV show or chat down the pub. All of these things are facilitators of information. Not everything will be useful, but there may be one nugget in one of them that is.

    I’m with Tess in the hope the election “stops journalistic hype over social media”. The problem with the hype is that it assumes social media is new, when it isn’t at all – there are just new demographics of people suddenly doing it – so there’s this expectation during big events that it will add this new revolutionary dynamic. This election exposes that a revolution can’t be orchestrated online or offline. It has to happen naturally with the right message that taps into people’s hopes, values and emotions. This is where I think you are spot on with regard to the right candidate. To generate a social revolution it would have needed a bigger personality and message.

    The social internet reflects masses of opinions, so the reason there was no revolution on Twitter or elsewhere is because people can’t see a reason to have one. Perhaps a hung parliament or small majority win is the revolution – we’ll see. If you look at all of the online trend tools for blogs, twitter (not the trending topics), search and others they actually do reflect other opinion polls more closely.

    In any case, while a standalone tweet didn’t make up my mind, it was a link within one to a webpage of information relevant to me that did, along with chatting to my friends. So Twitter mattered a lot to at least one person in this election 🙂

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    Jack the headline is provocative, but that was partly deliberately so. Normally we journalists are hyping this stuff so i wanted to flip that to whip up some debate. Job done.

    But on the issue of revolutions, I don’t think they happen because “people can’t see a reason to have one” and without getting all Marxist on you – they happen because of circumstance and opportunity. Most happen at the wrong time visavis 1917.

    It’s interesting that you were undecided and that a link helped you make up your mind. Clearly more of that happened this time around – manifestos were downloaded and timely information was made available, but as Tess and Thinkbox will be telling people today: we are watching more telly than ever before so there is this weird media story going on where the old and new old (digital TV) compete with new media.

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    Imagine for a second that Twitter is a Lib Dem marketing campaign rather than a social media platform. The campaign metrics show that reach is high among the target demo – tick. Audience engagement with the message shows a positive index – tick. Now what about the activation piece? I.e ‘vote Lib Dem this Thursday’? Oops, only 50% of a key segment of the demo (i.e people under 25, the change-makers) are actually registered to vote. Many more simply do not have access to the product, i.e a Lib Dem candidate with a real chance of winning. In marketing terms, it’s a job half-done whether you place the fault with the choice of media or with the execution.