openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Liberal Democrats lagging far behind other parties in digital campaigning

Despite outspending opposition, Swinson’s party has been mocked for ‘nonsense’ Facebook adverts.

Adam Bychawski headshot
Adam Bychawski Alastair Tibbitt
15 November 2019
Lib Dem online adverts.

The Liberal Democrats are languishing far behind the other major parties in the race to capture the attention of voters online.

Despite outspending rivals on Facebook, the party’s official social media accounts are generating only a fraction of the user engagement – likes, shares, or views – that the Conservatives or Labour are, according to a new analysis by openDemocracy.

The LibDems have managed to generate just a fifth of the total number of interactions – across its party Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube profiles – that the Conservatives have had since the beginning of September. In the first week of the election campaign, the Tories had ten times as much engagement on socials.

Labour is also far ahead of the Liberal Democrats with almost triple the total number of engagements over the past eleven weeks. The Brexit Party has managed just over double in the same period.

The Scottish National Party is beating the LibDems too, with 38.5% more interactions from users, despite targeting under a tenth of the UK electorate.

Skills wallets?

It’s not that the Liberal Democrats haven’t been trying. They have spent more on Facebook advertising in the run-up to the election than any other party. That amounts to £152,827-worth of adverts over the 90 days to 12 November – £6,474 more than Labour and £34,222 more than the Conservatives, according to Facebook’s ad reporting.

“Sack your social media guy.”

Facebook comment under Liberal Democrat advert

Last week, the LibDems spent hundreds of pounds on an advert promoting “skills wallets” that left Facebook users baffled. “What the hell's a skills wallet?” wrote one person. “Sack your social media guy. I'm not sure ‘skills wallets’ is a vote winner,” advised another.

The party announced the proposal, which would give every adult up to £10,000 to invest in education and training, days after running the advert.

Tories vs Labour vs Brexit

The Conservatives are doing significantly better than other parties, with almost twice as many social interactions since the beginning of September as their closest rival, Labour.

However, Labour has closed the gap in the fortnight since the election was called. The party can also rely on the campaign group Momentum to make up the shortfall in engagement on its official channels.

openDemocracy’s cross-platform analysis does not include the official social media profiles of the party leaders, though figures for Facebook show that Jeremy Corbyn’s page has been the most influential in November, with 1.6m more interactions as Boris Johnson’s.

The Brexit Party is only narrowly behind Labour in the total number of engagements it has received since September. Posts from the party’s official social media accounts edged out Labour for weeks before being overtaken in November.

Best messages

The Conservative Party has focused its social media messaging sharply on Brexit. Its top-performing post since September, shared on the day that Johnson failed to get his deal through Parliament, claims that Corbyn is to blame for delaying Brexit.

Labour’s top post, which has had 44,000 user engagements since it was shared last week, attacked the Tories for their voting record on the NHS.

The party has also had success with a meme that riffs on the controversial Vote Leave campaign bus, and accuses Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg of planning to send Donald Trump £500m per week. The figure has been called into question by independent fact-checkers, who pointed out that it is based on “fairly extreme” scenario.

All publicity is good publicity

Controversy over the Conservatives’ social media tactics has dominated the news since the start of the election campaign. Last week, the party was accused of posting misleading material after it shared a clip of Keir Stammer that was edited to show him unable to answer a question.

The doctored video, which used footage from an interview with the shadow Brexit secretary on ‘Good Morning Britain’, received 1.1 million views on Twitter and almost half a million on Facebook.

The Conservatives have revamped their digital strategy ahead of the election after being outgunned online by Labour in 2017. The active participation of Labour’s more tech-savvy supporters was said to be crucial to that success. Perhaps hoping to resupply that line of attack, Momentum recently launched a campaign to encourage supporters to produce and share their own videos.

The Conservatives have since hired two campaigners who previously worked for a controversial PR firm, run by political strategist Lynton Crosby, that has been accused of orchestrating a large-scale professional disinformation network.

Sean Topham and Ben Guerin also led the digital campaign of Australia’s right-wing coalition, which unexpectedly won the country’s general election in May. Their strategy of flooding social media with intentionally low-quality “Boomer memes” to drive reactions from users gave them a significant lead over opponents during the race.

The pair have adopted a similar plan for the Conservatives’ social media campaign. Last month, the party was widely mocked for posting a poorly designed slogan on Twitter. But the ridicule from political opponents only amplified the post and significantly widened its reach.

The party has also been dogged by claims that bots are behind thousands of identical comments left under posts by Boris Johnson’s official Facebook page.

The Liberal Democrats have also been facing questions over their digital tactics after openDemocracy revealed this week that the party sold voter data to the Remain campaign in 2016 for almost £100,000.

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