Labour insiders who worked for former party leader Ed Miliband insist that the 2015 UK general election was won and lost on Facebook.
While Labour built an impressive army of like-minded followers on the social media platform, the Conservatives were quietly using their bigger digital budget to target undecided voters in key marginal seats.
“We mistook getting lots of likes as an effective [digital] campaign,” said one Labour source, who said the party is changing its tactics ahead of next month’s general election.
Labour is not alone. All of the main political parties are ramping up their use of social media in the run-up to polling day, with campaign managers considering Facebook their most-powerful political weapon.
“The high and sustained levels of engagement mean it’s the number-one platform to target floating voters in marginal constituencies,” said Giles Kenningham, who was director of communications for the Conservatives in 2015 and now runs Trafalgar Strategy, a PR firm.
With Theresa May, UK prime minister, unexpectedly calling the election three years early, the “unusually short window” for campaigning has only magnified the importance of Facebook and other social media platforms, he added.
Will Straw, who ran the Remain campaign in last year’s EU referendum, said Facebook was now “on a par with the BBC for getting your message out there”, adding: “The difference is with the BBC you don’t have control of the end product.”
According to Facebook, more than half of the UK population has an account with the social media network, and Facebook users globally spend an average of 40 minutes per day on the site. By contrast, only one in four people in the UK uses Twitter, spending on average just one minute a day on the network.
As a result, parties and candidates are focused on upping their spending on Facebook ads, the sponsored messages that appear in people’s newsfeeds.
The Electoral Commission, the UK elections watchdog, found that the Conservatives spent £1.2m during the 2015 general election on buying Facebook advertising — more than seven times the £160,000 spent by Labour. The Liberal Democrats spent just over £22,000.
This time, Labour is aiming to match the Conservatives’ £1m social media war chest and directing its candidates to make better use of Facebook and other platforms.
The strategy centres on using so-called “big data” provided by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, which supported Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign last year. By building up an ever-more accurate picture of voters’ personalities and behaviour, parties are able to work out the most effective way to appeal to them.
Labour insiders say the party has used such data to develop a new system called “Promote”. The system tailors more than 1,000 versions of its core policy proposals in order to deliver what it calls “super local” messages on Facebook.
“It’s much more focused,” said one party source. “It allows us to advertise directly to people in a form they wouldn’t expect.”
But it is not all about spending money. Labour insiders say that at the same time as paying for ads, the party is pumping out free content, such as posts on candidates’ Facebook pages, on popular issues that are likely to be widely shared and liked.
It is the same approach that the Tories employed in 2015, focusing on “easy win” policy proposals that would be shared by undecided voters, such as owning your own council home or boosting apprenticeships.
Mr Kenningham said that while Facebook was the Tories’ main focus in 2015, Twitter was deployed to arm campaigners in constituencies with key messages. It was also used as a “rapid rebuttal” service to address stories as they were breaking, he said.
But while Twitter gained traction in last year’s US presidential campaign thanks to Mr Trump’s frequent outbursts, experts say that direct video messaging on Facebook is likely to remain the favoured method of communication in this year’s UK general election.
“Politicians have worked out that the power of social media comes from talking directly to people,” said Elizabeth Linder, who until last year ran Facebook’s European politics and government programme. “At the moment the Facebook news feed algorithm is very heavily geared towards promoting video.”
Mrs May is scheduled to take part in her first Facebook Live question-and-answer session on Monday, in an event produced by the broadcaster ITV. Similar events are expected to take place with other party leaders.
The session is just one example of how the Tories are using social media to reflect their wider campaign strategy of keeping the spotlight on Mrs May between now and June. The Sunday Times reported on Sunday that Conservative campaigners have been instructed to limit their Twitter and Facebook use in order to avoid deflecting attention from Mrs May.
A Conservative party spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment. The Liberal Democrats declined to comment.
With parties spending more on social media strategy, the elections watchdog is also under increased pressure to tighten rules around its deployment.
Parties are not required to break down exactly how they spend their digital money, leaving the rules — which limit local candidates to spending a fixed amount on all campaign costs of £8,700 plus a top up of 9p per registered voter on — open to abuse.
The Electoral Commission said it would be stepping up its scrutiny.
“We know how important social media will be this time around — we will be doing live monitoring and looking more closely at the spending returns when they come in,” it said.
Even so, some politicians question whether the millions of pounds being spent on social media will pay off for the parties.
“Everyone knows what the outcome of this election will be — a crushing Conservative win,” says the Scottish National party’s John Nicolson, who is fighting to once again win the East Dunbartonshire seat he took from Labour in 2015. “No amount of money on Facebook is going to make any difference.”