In the News

Is it going to be social media wot wins it?

Mike McCartney

24th May 2022

Echoing the famous Sun headline, how much influence does Twitter etc have?

In my experience the impact of the media is something that students initially think matters a great deal in British politics, but when we scratch beneath the surface, it's probably the case that its influence is peripheral, and ultimately it's probably only really important to professionals that work in the media or politics professions.

The role and significance of the media on politics

Of course, the debate on the influence of the media on UK elections hit a high-point in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 election.

But let’s provide a bit of context. What, historically, has driven election outcomes?

Politics post war: the twin anchors of class and party alignment

Peter Pulzer once said: "Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail." (1967). The strongest social influence on party choice, it was argued, was occupational class with the middle classes heavily Tory and working class voters pro-Labour

But this didn’t explain everything, because Britain was at that time mostly working class, and so Labour should been carried to election victory for the whole of that time. We know, of course, that that wasn't the case. Digging deeper, and influenced by psephologists on the other side of the Atlantic, Butler and Stokes found that large minorities didn't follow the class based pattern and their research revealed that parties mattered as well. According to their model, party identification refers to a sense of attachment to a party, a feeling of commitment. Voters are akin to a supporter, and not just someone who votes for it from time to time. So in some ways it is psycho-sociological. A bit like following a football team. AND upwards of 40% of voters described themselves as STRONG supporters. So short term factors may have had an influence but, the tendency was towards electoral stability rather than volatility.

The case for newspaper influence

Then in more recent decades, as class and party alignment unwound, it was said that all votes were up for grabs and short term factors came to the fore. Among these is media influence. So what of 1992? In that year, there was a late swing to Tories meant Kinnock clutched defeat from jaws of victory, with approx. 59% of adults reading a daily newspaper in the early nineties and the biggest in terms of sales was the Murdoch owned Sun at circa 3m, but with readership estimated to be many times that number. Any more evidence that newspaper readership may have some effect? Five years later it was the Sun wot won it again, according to the newspaper headline, after Murdoch switched allegiance to Blair in-between elections. Ore evidence comes form a study by researchers at Loughborough University who found that between 1992 and 2010 party that wins most votes tends to have most press support in terms of circulation. And in 2010 as Labour were defeated, with a swing from Lab to Cons 5%, it was much greater, at 13.5%, among Sun readers. So this fits with agenda setting theory, i.e. that media filters and shapes public opinion.

The case against newspaper influence

On the other side of the debate is media reinforcement theory:

  • Newspapers are a business and tend to reflect rather than shape public opinion
  • Most tabloid readers at that time were “grazers” – often switching choice of tabloid depending on things like what was on the front page.
  • The news/politics content of tabloids has not been a major component since the 1970s.
  • In 1992 Sun readers thought the Sun was a Labour supporting paper!!
  • In 1992 the swing towards Tories was as high among Daily Mirror readers as Sun readers.
  • In the 1997 poll, it was Black Wednesday that was decisive (It’s the economy, stupid!) in determining the outcome.
  • In 2010 the swing, according to Bob Worcester, mostly happened before the Sun’s endorsement of Cameron
  • In 2015 the Sun backed Cameron in England but Sturgeon in Scotland and Tories actually made bigger gains north of the border.

The rise of new/social media

2015 was said to be the first ‘social media election’ on the basis that there was an upsurge in politics related content on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. So could this explain success of Cameron and Sturgeon?

The following facts would seem to support the idea that new media can be used un support of agenda setting theory:

  • Politics most talked about topic on Facebook in that year – 78m interactions over 12m accounts
  • All 56 SNP MPs on Twitter.
  • 2017: Labour won the social media battle, outperforming >£1m spent by Conservatives on negative Facebook ads – said to have energised young voters.
  • The “Corbyn too big a risk” struck a chord with swing voters.

But don’t overstate it

Yougov.com poll suggests traditional media outlets still matter more:

  • 60% regularly get their political news from the BBC & 45% get their political news from a newspaper versus 15% Facebook & 8% Twitter See the data here.
  • And most popular viral clips were initially on traditional media

See the yougov details here

Questions about the impact on voting intentions of the young raised in the yougov poll, to my mind, segue to what many see as the myth of Corbyn “youthquake”.

So, overall, I think there is a strong element of confirmation bias/media reinforcement/echo chamber ideas with regards to the impact of social media, and it is unlikely that it could sway the outcome of a general election.

This view is largely corroborated by an article on the BBC I came across today, which looks at whether social media has had a corrosive influence on politics.

With regards to the cross over between politics and social media, it states:

"It is also worth reminding those who spend their days arguing about politics on Twitter and Facebook, that they are in the minority.

"We really need to remember that [online] doesn't represent the mass public," says Rasmus Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In the UK, the number of people existing solely in just tiny political echo chambers online are "not nothing, but the figures are smaller than you might think".

The estimate, he says, "is that 5% of UK internet users are in a left wing echo chamber, and 2% in a right wing echo chamber," but he says this has to be put in the context that "26% of internet users in the UK have not accessed any online news at all in the past week".

See the full story here: Social media: Did the pandemic poison online politics?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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