Labour supporters swamped Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites during the 2017 general election.
The online surge was widely seen – if mostly in hindsight – as an indicator that many polls were wrong and that Labour were running the Conservatives much closer than expected. And so it came to pass.
What’s different this time?
Labour loses its big advantage
The big online story during the 2017 general election was the influence of a host of pro-Labour websites.
The Tories spent more on paid adverts, but stories and posts hostile to the Conservatives and sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour went more viral, more often.
Many of these stories were produced by little known left-wing news sites. Because they’re not fuelled by paid advertising, such posts are called “organic”.
But since 2017, changes to Facebook’s algorithm – the code determining which posts get seen – have made it much harder for these sites to reach massive numbers of people. When it comes to dishing out organic content to users, Facebook is now more likely to recommend posts from family and friends, and less likely to show you things from organisations and media outlets.
That’s not the only development. While the ecosystem of left-wing Facebook pages and groups is still a big deal, two rival spheres of influence have grown in size.
One is passionately in favour of Brexit. The other is vehemently opposed.
At the heart of these three networks are volunteer activists working from living rooms and bathtubs up and down the UK, running Facebook pages and groups that, despite the algorithm changes, still attract millions of likes, comments and shares.
The pro and anti-Brexit spheres don’t uniformly identify with one party the way the pro-Corbyn networks do.
At the start of the election they were the source of bitter internal feuds. On the Leave side, there were fights over whether to support the Brexit Party or the Conservatives. In the Remain universe, Labour and Lib Dem supporters were at each other’s throats.
That picture has changed substantially. Following Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s decision to stand aside in Conservative seats, the pro-Brexit online universe now seems far more united behind Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
On the Remain side, there’s lots more talk of tactical voting, but as it’s often hard to make a call as to whether Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP or another party are best placed to beat the Tories in a particular seat, arguments have continued.
Could tactical voting kick Boris Johnson out of Downing Street? Or will uniting Leave voters keep him there?
Missing online voters
The pro- and anti-Brexit pages and groups are full of vocal activists, but not everyone shouts loudly online.
There are of course plenty of voters who aren’t on social media at all. They tend to be older people who skew Conservative.
But added to that, administrators and users of local Facebook groups told us Conservative voters are, anecdotally, generally shyer when it comes to posting online.
But there’s another group that’s gone pretty quiet on Facebook.
Younger people have migrated to other social networks – chief among them Instagram – in large numbers since 2017.
They are now less likely to engage on Facebook, and more likely to see, for instance, Instagram screenshots of Jeremy Corbyn tweets posted by singer Lily Allen (1.2 million followers) or fitness influencers like Grace Beverley (1 million followers).
Those interactions are hard to track – but we do know it’s happening in a big way, and is more likely to include pro-Labour messaging.
Beyond the Facebook battle, there could be a new “shy Tory” wave brewing, or we could be missing a rare confirmed sighting of the often-predicted “youthquake” – or perhaps both.
Smartphone use continues to rise, and continues to transform the nature of political campaigning.
Recent research by media regulator Ofcom says our phones encourage “passive news consumption” with people prioritising “quantity over depth in their news intake”.
Parties and activists are trying to punch through with very simple posts – like screenshotted tweets – or dramatic and confrontational videos.
Many of the biggest viral hits are examples clips from old-school broadcast outlets in which a politician is perceived to have done badly in an interview.
If there’s one image that’s cut through in the final week of the campaign, it’s that of four-year-old Jack sleeping on a hospital floor.
But will that push enough voters away from the Conservatives to make a difference?
There is no ‘digital election’
If there was ever any suggestion that what happens online and offline elections aren’t intimately connected, let it end here.
In 2019 we’ve found internet campaigning just bleeds into everything, with online and offline events bouncing off each other and interacting in curious and unexpected ways.
In the marginal seat of Hastings and Rye we unpicked the story of a misleading bar chart which started in a Facebook group and later landed on people’s doormats on a paper leaflet, only to be criticised and mocked with memes online.
In South Yorkshire we found out how a local group shapes how one town experiences an election, with gentle chat about wheelie-bins and hedgehogs making way for spicy political arguments.
Even people who don’t use Facebook are often aware of these local groups and indirectly receive information from them. In many cases, these groups are more influential than the local media.
Could the very local arguments and micronuggets of news which spread in some of these groups lead to some surprise results?
How does it all end?
We’ve been spending every day of the campaign trawling through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more.
It sometimes feel like everyone is constantly shouting at each other about the election, spreading dubious claims and counter-claims, and picking apart the latest slip-up by a politician in a TV interview.
But most voters don’t experience elections in this way.
One screenshotted tweet, one Facebook rant or one piece of viral misinformation may punch through the news feed noise of dog photos and football videos and affect the way someone votes.