Did social media change the 2010 General Election?

The General Election this month was meant to be the first of the social media age, with connected voters using their online influence to sway the result. But with “old media” televised debates dominating the campaign, did social media really come into its own?

The General Election this month was meant to be the first of the social media age, with connected voters using their online influence to sway the result. But with “old media” televised debates dominating the campaign, did social media really come into its own?

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The previous election in 2005 remained largely untouched by the internet, never mind social media. Facebook was less than a year old and open to college students only, YouTube didn’t exist and Twitter didn't start until March 2006.

Fast forward five years and we had Facebook encouraging users to engage with the election in a way we have not seen before.

Engaging younger voters

The social network launched its Democracy UK page to engage users throughout the election process and saw over 270,000 “likes” and almost a million votes on the poll. With over 23 million UK users on Facebook, it offered voters a chance to share opinion and debate issues within a personal space.

Facebook also launched a voter registration page in partnership with the Electoral Commission, reflecting the political world’s recognition of the power of social media’s engagement with younger voters. The page led to 14,000 registration forms being downloaded.

And the Conservatives won the debate over which party used Facebook to the greatest effect with more than nearly 100,000 fans, compared to the Liberal Democrats on 90,000 and Labour less than 50,000, suggesting the LibDems' surge was mirrored by growing popularity on Facebook.

However, to put these numbers into perspective, Barack Obama had more than two million US supporters on Facebook and more than 112,000 on Twitter helping him to be elected president.

Social media meets TV

Facebook also tapped into the excitement about the three party leaders’ TV debates, developing a “rate the debate” application to gauge users’ reactions in real-time. Post-debate polling determined Nick Clegg won each time, with 60% at the first debate, slipping to 45% for the third.






Week 1




Week 2




Week 3





These results reflect the instantaneous nature of the internet – it became common practice for viewers to adopt a “double gazing” stance, sitting in front of the TV with a laptop watching the debates and commenting through social networks.

Thousands of people engaged in live commentary on Twitter - as it became clear Clegg was the winner of the first debate, this was mirrored on the micro-blogging site.

Clegg faced intense scrutiny from Tory-supporting media with many headlines trying to sully his name, but the public started to champion him online. Clegg was seen as a victim of traditional media, leading to a backlash on Twitter.

The satirical hash-tag #nickcleggsfault was widely adopted for users tweeting wild accusations aimed at Clegg, such as claims he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding and that he staged the moon landing. The craze showed how popular Clegg had become and was positive viral marketing for the Liberal Democrats.

However, Clegg’s popularity peaks were ultimately short-lived (see chart)

Source: Attensity - Click image to enlarge

Graph 1 – Nick Clegg sentiment

  • A – During the first debate, Clegg was the only leader to get almost equal volumes of positive and negative sentiment.
  • B – The second debate shows that the honeymoon was over, and there was a much larger volume of negative sentiment spurred on by the media.
  • C – Again, in the third debate, the gap between negative and positive sentiment is larger than in debate 1.
  • D – The date of the election, with a gradual increase in the volume of sentiment.  We see that there were more negative than positive sentiment during this period.

Online marketing

More covert tactics were also used online with both the Conservatives and Labour operating aggressive campaigns on Google by bidding for search terms through AdWords.

The Labour party tried to bid for “David” and “Cameron” to divert users to a page that attacked the Tory leader, while typing in “hung parliament” led to a choice of Conservative website links and the Ann Summers website proclaiming, ‘Find out why we believe in a well hung parliament’.

The Lib Dems managed to get a YouTube clip of Clegg talking about the Digital Economy Bill as the spotlight video for iGoogle users, and the Tories were able to take their campaign further by buying the front page of YouTube on polling day, placing an advert telling users to vote Conservative.

The Liberal Democrats also attempted to produce a viral marketing campaign by posting a series of videos on YouTube alongside the launch of their “labservative” website which was used to highlight how electing either Labour or the Conservatives would lead to no change for Britain.

But more sophisticated methods are emerging for exploiting and measuring the effect that social media could have on a future election campaign.

Automating in-depth understanding of social media conversations can provide detailed insight towards predicting election results. Candidates and pundits can use social media monitoring and conversation analysis tools, provided by companies like Attensity to understand voter trends, opinions and sentiment, relating to the key issues being discussed and the personalities involved.

"Using social media monitoring and semantic-based discovery capabilities you can also uncover unexpected patterns of interest emerging, providing significant clues towards the ultimate conclusions," says Ian Bonner, CEO of Attensity, a social CRM application provider.

“Just as they offer their opinion on products and services, the UK public is sharing their views online, with respect to their choice of government and prime minister."

Digital voting

Canvassing the views of the social media community would have seen the Liberal Democrats close to winning the election, but it is a distorted view because people who engage with social networking are, in general, younger and more liberal-minded. Social media has an average age of mid-20s - the demographic with the lowest voter turnout.

Younger voters also tend to be influenced more by personalities than the party and the issues they want to resolve. On Twitter, the conversation was far more personal towards the leaders and far less about party policies and their manifestos (see chart).

Source: Attensity - Click image to enlarge

A survey from a mobile phone comparison website found that 66% of youths interviewed vote on reality TV shows, but only 64% would vote at the election. It also found that three-quarters would vote if they could use texting or social media. They find the voting process dated and would prefer to shoot off an email, tweet or send a text to register their vote, with little awareness of the legal and security issues involved.

Older generations are used to registering to vote and filling out a ballot and although times have changed, it seems the traditional methods are still the most effective.

Despite the talk about a digital election, traditional media was used to great affect with the Tories’ poster campaign also making a big impact. Coverage of the posters by broadcast, digital and print media suggests this was more effective than any marketing conducted through a computer.

But as the UK continues to be more digital, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg would do well to convince his new boss to make digital voting available because judging by this year’s experience, social media and technology was firmly on the Liberal Democrats’ side.

The graph below shows volume of comment, both negative and positive, throughout the election on social media.

Source: Attensity - Click image to enlarge

Graph 1 – all leaders compared

  • A – Date of first debate. Prior to debate most discussion was about Brown and Cameron, but afterwards Clegg stayed high for longer than the others.
  • B – Second debate. Clegg generated much more interest than the other two.  However on this occasion it dropped off more quickly.
  • C – Brown’s ‘bigot’ gaffe. This generated more interest than anything else during the campaign.
  • D – Third debate. Another spike of comment, especially for Brown.
  • E – The actual election shows another increase in commentary.

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