Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on one of the dozens of Jeremy Corbyn support groups on Facebook will soon realise one thing; these people hate the mainstream media. To a certain extent, the spectacular ferociousness of this backlash is pretty justified. One only needs to take a look at the handful of The Sun headlines either overexaggerating or outright lying about Corbyn’s positions to understand that the right-wing press was never really interested in giving the man a fair shot. Everything from nonsense claims about him wanting to abolish the army to criticism of The Labour Leader not bowing enough at a remembrance ceremony.
Other times, however, justified criticism of media bias gives way to a defeatist bunker mentality amid paranoid claims that pretty much everyone is out to get them. It’s at this point when the fervently left-wing Guardian starts getting accused of right-wing bias, and when every uncomfortable truth gets a conspiracy theorist explanation. The classic example is attacking the “biased” and “corporatist” BBC for not giving them enough attention. Did the BBC fail to cover some council by-election on an otherwise busy news day? Well clearly that’s it’s “right-wing bias” showing through the cracks.
So what’s the solution then? How does Jeremy Corbyn’s loyal army of internet followers fight back against this obvious establishment stitch-up? Well, in what has unfortunately become a common tactic for the left, the answer came in the form of a Twitter hashtag.
It is 7pm on the 30th of July, and #WeAreHisMedia has just started trending. In what they personally chose to describe as a “Twitterstorm”, this obnoxious self-congratulatory orgy of Corbyn supporters fought back against the media establishment by preaching to the choir and converting absolutely no-one. The idea, of course, is that we don’t even need the mainstream press and that social media alone will be enough to win the next election. As long as there’s a loyal and dedicated Facebook/Twitter army out there to carry the message, surely enough positive exposure can be generated, right?
No, for better or for worse, social media doesn’t have that kind of influence (at least not yet anyway). As put by The Guardian columnist Owen Jones, “If Twitter was as effective as we’d like, Labour would have won a majority of 200 last time”, which is pretty hard to argue with. If you only had Social Media to go on, you’d have thought that Ed Milliband would now be living in Downing Street, such was his disproportionate level of support online. Furthermore, one would also think that if social media was an accurate representation of the voting public, Brexit would have comfortably won by a two-thirds majority.
The far right neo-fascist “political party” Britain First has, at the time of writing, just short of 1.5 million Facebook followers, which is considerably more than Labour and The Conservatives put together. However, in stark contrast with this extreme level of online publicity, the group never manages to get over a few hundred people at its rallies and when it’s deputy leader decided to stand at the Rochester and Strood by-election, she scrapped together a grand total of 56 votes (less than the Monster Raving Loony Party).
There are many reasons why social media is not quite as effective as some of us would like, but I think it mainly comes down to these two points:
- The kind of people who are generally active online are in no way an accurate representation of the wider electorate. These are disproportionately younger voters and those with much more free time on their hands. In contrast, the kind of people still most likely to turn out to vote are the older generation, which is nowhere near as active on Facebook and Twitter.
- Those who claim that social media can win elections greatly underestimate the ability of others to create an ideological echo-chamber. More often than not, users chose to follow only the people they happen to agree with, and sometimes actively avoid those that threaten their carefully constructed narrative. In such an environment, 95% of your propaganda will never reach its intended recipient. Never, ever, underestimate the human capacity to put fingers in one’s ear and shout “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU”.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not at all suggesting that social media isn’t important. Facebook and Twitter should always be part of a political party’s media strategy, which is precisely why The Conservative’s spent millions on online advertising during last year’s election. However, to claim that social media alone can guarantee electoral success while burning bridges with the conventional press is a recipe for disaster.