The Conservative party may have a dominant lead over Labour in the opinion polls, but on social media a radically different narrative is playing out – one that's largely invisible if you judge the election simply on the basis of television and newspaper coverage. The stories that get shared most on Facebook aren't necessarily the ones that lead the traditional news agenda; the way online communities share them reflects a very different world from that of stage-managed campaign events and photo opportunities.
That's why we're producing the BuzzFeed Social Barometer. Each week of the campaign, we'll track the most shared links about the general election across Facebook, Twitter, and more. And we'll be exploring what this tells us about the changing ways we get our information and interact with politics.
What We're Doing, And How We're Doing It
We've used data from BuzzSumo, a company that tracks social sharing across multiple platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. (BuzzSumo has no connection to BuzzFeed, despite the similar name.)
We searched for a wide range of terms related to the general election – including the names of the major parties and party leaders, obvious keywords such as "election" and "poll", plus significant topics related to the election, such as "Brexit". The first set of data is from between 18 April (when Theresa May announced her plans for a snap election) and 3 May (when parliament dissolved and the election campaign officially began). After this, we'll run new searches on a weekly basis and update our list of search terms to include new topics and individuals that become prominent in the campaign.
We manually removed articles that weren't about the UK election, to narrow the list down to the top 250 most-shared links in the time period that relate to our search terms. Of course, there's no way to guarantee that this method will capture every single story about the election – but the sample should be highly representative.
We then classified the articles in two ways: by which party (if any) was the main focus of the story; and by whether the article's sentiment was broadly positive, negative, or neutral towards the party in question.
If in doubt, we erred on the side of describing an article's sentiment as neutral – for example, straight write-ups of policy announcements with no editorialising would generally be counted as neutral, even if the party concerned would probably be happy that their message was getting out there. It's worth noting that this sentiment classification doesn't imply that an article was necessarily "biased" – it could be entirely fair reporting of news that's simply good or bad for the party in question.
What We Found
The league table below shows the top 20 most-shared links in the period between 18 April and 3 May. The stories are coloured by which party is their primary focus (stories that are about multiple parties, or no party, are in grey), and the dial on the left shows the degree of positive sentiment in the story: either negative, neutral, or positive.
The top 20 shows a pattern that persists throughout the whole top 250 – the most shared stories about Labour are predominantly either positive or neutral about the party, while stories about the Conservatives are overwhelmingly negative in sentiment.
The top two most popular links, both of which went hugely viral, are explicitly pro-Labour or anti-Conservative: a blog post about Jeremy Corbyn's policies "that the mainstream media really don't want to tell you about", and an infographic suggesting how people should vote in every seat to keep the Conservatives out of power.
This difference is even more stark when you narrow it down to look at stories about specific parties.
The Difference Between The Parties
Here are the top 20 most-shared stories about Labour
Of the top 20 most-shared stories that are primarily about Labour, 13 are positive towards the party, six are broadly neutral, and only one (about Diane Abbott) is negative.
This pattern continues throughout the top 250 – 53% of the stories about Labour are positive, while only 10% are negative. In fact, of the 62 stories in the top 250 that we rated as positive, a massive 66% are about Labour (11% were positive about the Conservatives, the same figure as for the Liberal Democrats.) In total, positive stories about Labour got seven times as many shares as negative ones.
But if the internet loves to share positive stories about Labour, there's one thing it loves even more: sharing negative stories about the Conservatives.
Here are the top 20 stories about the Conservatives
There isn't a single positive story about the Conservatives in the top 20 most-shared stories about them. In fact, it's even more dramatic than that – you have to go all the way down to the 80th most-shared story before you find one that's positive about them. (It's a piece titled "Theresa May set to CUT foreign aid spending" from a site called Your Brexit, and it turned out not to be true.)
Negative stories about the Conservatives made up an incredible 36% of all the stories in the top 250 (positive Labour stories made up 16%, with neutral stories about Labour or no specific party both on 11%). Of all the most shared stories about the Conservatives, 76% were negative; 86% of all negative stories were about them. In total, negative stories about the Conservatives attracted 20 times as many shares as positive stories about them – 1.5 million versus 75,000.
It's also notable that, with the exception of the BBC's straight news story about May's call for an election, none of the most viral stories about the Conservatives came from a traditional news outlet.
The Rise Of The Alternative Left-Wing Media
The most shared single link in the period since May called for an election is from blogger Thomas G Clark, an English tutor from Yorkshire who writes on his site Another Angry Voice. His post on Corbyn's policies was a runaway hit, but it was no fluke – he also has another post in the top 20.
Also represented twice in the top 10 overall stories is the pro-Corbyn outlet The Canary, which has come to dominate much of the left-wing political conversation on social media since it was founded in 2015. Longstanding left-wing blogger Tom Pride, plus that super-viral graphic about anti-Tory tactical voting, are also there in the top 10. None of those are traditional news sources, but they're regularly out-sharing major media outlets. They're part of the new online alternative left-wing media that's increasingly having a significant influence over mainstream politics.
Tom Phillips is the UK editorial director for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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