What influence could Facebook pages have on the General Election?
Members of the public behind some of the UK’s most popular political social media accounts say they have reached millions of voters – but experts are uncertain of the effect they could have on this week’s General Election.
Along with those of traditional news outlets and politicians, pages run by small teams or lone anonymous bloggers dominate public political discussion on Facebook which is the most widely used platform, being visited by around half of the UK.
Politically opposed Facebook pages such as Get Britain Out or Very Brexit Problems both reach millions of people and receive hundreds of thousands of interactions, such as likes or shares.
There are over a hundred unofficial pages with Jeremy Corbyn’s name, from Grand Marshal Corbyn’s Patriotic Meme Collective to Depressed Vegetarians For Corbyn.
Data from social monitoring platform Crowdtangle shows since the election was called on October 29 pro-Brexit campaign group Unity received more interactions for a single post using the term “Corbyn” than any except one – which was posted by the Labour leader himself.
The post, a video of a girl burning a remembrance poppy and saying “f*** the Queen”, was originally captioned “bet she is a Corbyn backer” and shared over 41,000 times.
It was later edited to say the girl “is apparently an Irish Republican”.
Very Brexit Problems receives much of its traffic by referring to the Conservatives, with one recent post depicting Boris Johnson singing with a guitar – accompanied by the caption “I will tell 500 lies and I will tell 500 more…”
The page’s creator Joel Willans says he would “love to see the Tories routed for what they’ve done to the UK” – a country which he has not lived in since 2001.
Mr Willans now resides in Finland and describes himself as a “proud British European”.
“I started Very Brexit Problems a day or so after referendum result as a kind of therapy,” Mr Willans told the PA news agency.
“I have a number of Facebook pages… Combined they reach anywhere from 10-30 million people a month.
“It’s a very unique buzz knowing you have the power to reach so many.”
Mr Willans said pages “have huge potential influence, if campaigns are carefully constructed and properly targeted” and “absolutely” can change minds ahead of a public vote.
Thomas Clark writes left-leaning articles on his blog Another Angry Voice, a brand known to 9% of the UK according to 2018 research by the Reuters Institute for Journalism.
“I’m not sure many people have ever experienced this kind of extraordinary famous-yet-anonymous existence before,” Mr Clark, from Yorkshire, told PA.
“I’m from a working-class background and lead a very ordinary and quite frugal life outside of my work.
“I think social media pages like mine are vital in the election, especially on Facebook.”
However, the University of Oxford Internet Institute’s Nahema Marchal warns the effects of being exposed to political social media posts are not yet fully understood.
“Even though people tend to assume social media can influence the election or swing votes there is actually very little research that’s done on this impact,” she told PA.
“People who are more partisan are going to seek out that type of information – that means the people who follow these pages or share that content may already hold these views.
“However research actually shows social media platforms tend to expose people to a much wider range of information than people tend to think – by virtue of our friends sharing information we might never have thought of ourselves.”
Jayne Adye is the director of Get Britain Out, a pro-Brexit group she runs with a team of two other people which has existed for around a decade.
According to data from Newswhip, mentions of the Liberal Democrats on Facebook since the election was called have received more interactions on the Get Britain Out page than any except Leave.EU and the official Lib Dem account.
Asked about her page’s success, Ms Adye said: “My only function is to try and inform people but not talk gobbledegook and talk to people of a wide range of intelligence – from maybe people who shop in the supermarket to the very intellectual.
“Using straight normal language people will understand – I think that’s lacking from mainstream media.
“I only have a team of two and it would be really difficult without social media, it would be a question of knocking on doors or sending letters or handing out leaflets.”
Although their reach is still large, many of those running these pages say numbers are declining – attributing this shift to changes made by Facebook.
“I used to get 10,000-50,000 hits via Facebook as standard, and up to a million on viral articles during election time,” Another Angry Voice creator Mr Clark said.
“Since Facebook altered the algorithm below 10,000 is the absolute norm, and the idea of going anywhere near 100,000, let alone 1,000,000 is a fantasy.”
When asked about these changes Facebook pointed to the introduction of a new system in January 2018 which ranks every story with a score of how likely a user is to “find it meaningful”.
The company say this system is based on the principle “that friends and family come first, and that your feed should inform and entertain you”.
This automatic curation of news feeds was criticised by the page creators, with Ms Adye saying: “It isn’t Facebook’s place to be deciding what the average user sees.”
While interactions with unofficial Facebook pages may still be high, expert Ms Marchal added it is important to “keep things in perspective” with regards to their in comparison with mainstream outlets.
“Sure some pages on Facebook might seem like they have an awful lot of followers and are getting more traction, but in some ways they are still drops in the vast ocean of reputable sources and mainstream information,” she said.
“Problematic campaigning from the parties themselves is something we should pay just as much attention to as information coming from bloggers or smaller outlets and Facebook pages.”