This is a retrospective look at the social media campaign credited with helping Jeremy Corbyn achieve the leadership of the British Labour Party in September 2015. It is hoped that this offers some insights for unions, both within the UK and globally, …

This is a retrospective look at the social media campaign credited with helping Jeremy Corbyn achieve the leadership of the British Labour Party in September 2015. It is hoped that this offers some insights for unions, both within the UK and globally, about how we might use social media to win ‘big’ campaigns, and reach audiences beyond the so called “echo chamber” of Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a curious thing that, months after the election which saw Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 with a thumping 59.5% of the first round vote, the mainstream media were still struggling to understand how it had happened. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t kept a close eye on the campaign itself: hardly a day went by without there being some intrigue about the Corbyn campaign, its personalities and its problematic relationship to the party machine. But there was a sense that it was all too fantastical, and right up until the end the media clung on to the idea that ‘normality’ would be restored and the status quo re-established. 200-1 shots don’t win Labour leadership elections, after all. Even after Corbyn’s election on September 12th, when that theory was firmly put to bed, media commentators attempted to frame it in terms of received wisdom, failing to identify what was unique about this campaign.

The media narrative

In Patrick Wintour’s long survey of the campaign in the Guardian, ‘The Corbyn Earthquake’, which sold itself as the “inside story…of how Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign delivered the political shock of a generation”, the story told was as if all the shocks had emanated from the internal politics of Westminster, and most specifically, the Parliamentary Labour Party. Anything that happened outside of that traditional political arena was side-lined: the grassroots organisation within Constituency Labour Parties and the unions which brought the nominations of a vast majority of CLPs and union executives; the enormous volunteer operation, which engaged 17,000 people up and down the country; the regional campaigns, which helped organise hundreds of meetings and street stalls; the packed phone banks; the use of technology to organise the campaign; even the huge public rallies are only mentioned in passing. And predictably, Wintour fails to give social media a single mention.

Wintour’s omissions were reflected across the liberal media in those first few weeks. On one level, this is hardly surprising, as it is part of the illusion that social media campaigning happens as if by ‘magic’. However, campaign agent John McDonnell stated on several occasions that without social media, Jeremy would never have got the 35 nominations needed to get on the ballot, or win the leadership election that followed. It was the driver for much of the positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, through social media, the campaign was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for Corbyn’s supporters (in a YouGov survey towards the end of the campaign, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population).

The significance of the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign

Of course, the left had been here before, with very different results. In 2007 and 2010, John McDonnell had failed to get on the ballot and Diane Abbott’s subsequent challenge in 2010 ended in last place and 7.4% of the vote. Many expected the same again 2015. So, if we are going to properly analyse the so-called ‘earthquake’, it makes sense to take as a starting point the things that were different about this campaign, rather than those familiar routes taken by previous left campaigns for the Labour leadership. That means looking seriously at the significance of the Jeremy Corbyn social media project. It’s widely accepted that social media has transformed the way we campaign. In the States, Obama’s successful 2008 Presidential bid changed the whole way that social media was seen – as a tool for community organising with real effects (registration of voters, attendance at rallies and getting the vote out). In Britain, UK Uncut and Occupy, in particular, used social media to give life to their activity (whether that was publicising the direct action taken by demonstrators or ‘live streaming’ the occupation of St Paul’s). However, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour Party leadership was the first time we have seen the concrete evidence in terms of an internal party election in this country. The key to this shift isn’t the use of social media per se, but the way it has been utilised. There is a great deal of difference between the ordinary, daily use of social media to communicate and the strategic use of social media to campaign. There is even more of a difference between using social media as a traditional “top down” campaigning tool (publicising events, sharing content or relaying information) and using it as an interactive, democratic tool which gives people a genuine stake in political projects and in the construction of counter narratives to the traditional media.

The Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign was, by a long stretch, the biggest single social media campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. From a standing start on the 4th of June 2015, the Facebook campaign reached 30,000 likes by the end of the month. There were spikes after the Welfare Bill vote in late July (3,800 new likes in 72 hours) and by the time of the count in September 2015, 67,000 were following the page, with a similar number following on Twitter (64,000). On Facebook, the weekly reach (the numbers of people who actually see the posts) during the campaign itself peaked at 5.9 million, and at the last televised hustings of the leadership campaign in Gateshead, the Corbyn campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. It was clear at that point that Corbyn was winning the social media war. The #JezWeCan hashtag, which began as a joke, (actually sent to the social media team by an Andy Burnham-supporting local councillor) became the political phrase of the summer, with 82,000 mentions of the hashtag from the end of August to the leadership conference alone.

The real value of all this incredible “reach” is that it enabled campaigners to use these social media platforms as a political tool, giving them leverage where previously there was very little. That was illustrated in the nominations campaign right at the start of the summer. Far from being ‘gifted’ nominations by strangely generous Labour MPs, massive pressure was being brought to bear on Labour MPs by a huge letter writing campaign, petitions, Twitterstorms, all organised via the emerging social media operation.

Subsequently, the extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign (essentially by the interaction between social media and the nationbuilder website), as were the funding drives: a conservative estimate would be that around half the £214,000 raised online was due to signposting from the social media operation. In a long campaign, social media was key to generating interest, both in Corbyn’s history and politics, and the policy debates that his team wanted to facilitate in order to distinguish themselves from the other ‘mainstream’ candidates. The result was that, as the campaign moved on to its final weeks, the outsider was dictating the terms of the debate (a complete role reversal from Corbyn’s traditional role in the party).

Social media and the ‘new politics’

In terms of content, the key to it was the carefully put together images and videos, both of Jeremy’s speeches and of the grassroots activity, as well as the selecting of articles and statements which encouraged our supporters and sparked activity on the ground. Social media campaigning is at its most effective when it distils the essence of an ideological approach and makes it accessible to a wider range of people than would read policy documents, or their interpretation in the media. In many ways, Corbyn was the perfect candidate for social media, though it might not have been obvious from the start. Because his language isn’t academic and his politics are grounded in real experience, the social media team were easily able to generate memes (shareable graphics), snippets of quotes and video clips that resonated with the new selectorate seamlessly. Although the left is quite rightly cynical about the use of marketing language in political campaigning, it’s undoubtedly true that through social media, we were able to tell Jeremy’s story (and give the leadership race a narrative unlikely to be covered in the mainstream media).

One of the most widely shared memes of the summer campaign was a photo of Corbyn being arrested outside the South African Embassy in 1984, juxtaposed with images of him speaking at rallies and marches during the campaign, with the headline: ‘You knew what he stood for then. You know what he stands for now.’ Although seen as one of the stalwarts of the Labour left – and well known to those who had been plugging away inside the Labour Party during the Blair years – Jeremy Corbyn’s principled politics were little known outside of those circles. Social media played an important part in filling in the blanks – and popularising the message. But it went deeper than this. It generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from. If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to the social media operation. In stark contrast to the New Labour approach, which viewed activists as ‘water carriers’ at best, and a nuisance at worst, the social media campaign – allied with that huge volunteer operation – offered the hope of a better party organisation as well as a better politics.

In social media, size does matter. However, although the number of ‘likes’ or followers provides the base for everything you do in a social media campaign, the crucial factor (in winning ‘hearts and minds’) is in the “engagement”. Engagement in terms of likes, shares, comments and direct messaging, is where people take part in the debate, share those discussions and convince others of our arguments. This has been vital in terms of winning the ideological battle, but also in terms of circumventing the media narrative about Corbyn’s leadership. It is through engagement that social media can break outside of the “echo chamber” which many commentators have talked about in relation to social media. The development of Facebook pages between 2010 and 2012 encouraged a different use of the platform, which privileged sharing over closed groups. This was designed for businesses principally, who by their very nature needed an open platform (where popular content arrived on user’s timelines and advertised their products) but the changes had a huge impact on campaigning pages too. Throughout the summer campaign, the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader page consistently had the best engagement rates amongst similar campaigning pages. Facebook analytics show that, for example, even with a following a third the size, the succeeding Jeremy Corbyn for PM page had an engagement rate of 17 times that of the Labour Party’s. A similar pattern could be seen on Twitter, where retweets from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader account far outstripped more established, and heavily resourced campaigns.

A race to the bottom? Clicktivism and ‘lazy activism’

Although there was clear evidence of social media presence during the Labour leadership campaign, many political commentators were nevertheless doubtful about its impact. Two major arguments were put forward: firstly, a long standing one – that the campaign’s social media operation was just another, modified form of clicktivism; and secondly, that social media operated in a kind of ‘echo chamber’, which engaged existing supporters, but was ineffective in changing minds outside of that supporter base.

Since its inception, online activism has been critiqued as ‘clicktivism’. Some of the arguments were summarised by Micah White’s Guardian article in 2010, ‘Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism’. In it, he says:

“A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

In what White describes as a “race to the bottom of political engagement”, social media creatives such as MoveOn.org became obsessed with metrics as evidence of political engagement, in the same way that business measured the success of their brands. Less and less is being asked of activists, and it was becoming more and more difficult to persuade people to take ‘real world’ action.

Undoubtedly, some of this critique was legitimate, especially in the early days of social media when a fairly static, top down offering lent itself to simple, standalone online actions. There was a real danger of ‘outrage fatigue’, owing to the limitations of the technology and the simple use of the medium. However, in social media terms, six years is a lifetime – and in that intervening period, social media campaigning changed from a set of tools which reflected that political disengagement, to one which was starting to be used in an organising way: that is, through the engagement of grassroots, self-organised social media activists who were shaping the debate and influencing offline activity, rather than being fed information.

Many political and media commentators failed to spot these changes, which, combined with constant innovation from users of social media (linking Facebook and Twitter, the use of images on Instagram and Tumblr and experimenting with different profiles, event pages and internal groups) generated deep interaction with supporters and online activists. Whether this change was designed for political activism is hardly the point. It transformed the way that social media could be used for campaigning. For a 5 or 6 years before the Corbyn campaign, groups of activists were developing methods which would feed into the leadership election. Those outside that activist base understandably couldn’t see the potential of this new media, which seemed chaotic and unmanageable in comparison to traditional political campaigning methods. Their perception of social media, though not wholly negative, was principally formed by media stories of ‘cyber bullying’ and a perception that social media was insular, ‘lazy’ activism, a simplified version of that wider critique of ‘clicktivism’. Right up to the General Election of 2015, there was a sense in which social media had got us so far, but now it was time to “get real”.

In fact, at that General Election, it was the Tories who showed that they understood the power of social media. The Conservatives won the social media battle in the last election, particularly on Facebook, where their reach was considerably larger than Labour’s. Some of the reason for that was purely about their budget: the Tories spent a whopping £1.2 million on Facebook advertising at the 2015 General Election, compared to £16,000 by the Labour Party. The Conservatives understood that it was impossible for them to create a movement on social media, but what they did understand was the sheer size of these social media platforms. Globally, there are 968 million daily active users of Facebook alone, with around 31 million of them in the UK. Twitter has around 10 million daily users. It is no longer, as it once was, a preserve for the young, or the metropolitan, or the middle class. Social media has been likened to a very large pub, with everyone talking at once – tens of thousands of conversations at once. The key to making sense of it, of how to create some movement out of all those disparate voices, is about how it’s organised. So it’s not about online vs offline, it’s not about packed out meeting halls vs Facebook events, it’s about whether we can rise to the challenge of genuinely harnessing the many weapons at our disposal in a democratic and meaningful way.

During the Corbyn campaign, the ‘real world’ packed halls were impressive enough – anything up to 3,000 people came out in all weathers, in all parts of the country and at short notice. But even they were dwarfed by the numbers of social media. The regular weekly ‘reach’ (those who saw the page) of the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Leader’ Facebook page during the campaign hovered between 1.5 million and 2 million for three months. After Corbyn was elected, those numbers reached up to 10 million. Those who, on a weekly basis, engaged in the page actively averaged around 200,000, but again rocketed as the election result was announced, to 700,000 – and during the campaign to stop the bombing of Syria, engagement reached over 1 million. On Twitter, there were over 250,000 mentions of the campaign during the summer, with reach hovering again at the 2 million mark. These are phenomenal figures – and yet still it’s not the real point. The real power of social media compared to the mainstream media is as an organising tool. To build a movement, there is a need to value and develop activism on the ground – and the traditional, liberal media just does not have that relationship with the grassroots. It’s always been its function to be somewhat distant, making judgements on these movements, rather than being immersed in them.

Social media as an echo chamber?

Still, some left commentators weren’t convinced of the political effect of social media campaigning. Owen Jones has written extensively over the last two years about the inevitable limits of social media and the danger of the “echo chamber” effect, and argued just after the leadership election result:

“The left, and supporters of Corbyn in particular, are often accused of retreating into an echo chamber. That is an obvious danger for any individual or movement that operates almost exclusively via social media: tweet something sticking it to the Tories, start watching the retweets piling up, and it can seem as though society is cheering you on.”

That perspective has a lot of resonance based on the ‘clicktivism’ theories outlined above. However, there comes a point when we need to acknowledge that we are in new territory. 10 million people is a big echo chamber – and even those 700,000 to 1 million who are actively engaging on a weekly basis is considerably bigger than even wildly optimistic assessments of the Labour-aligned left previous to the campaign. Also, it’s no longer a passive audience. Almost everything the official Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader operation put out in over three months of campaigning was a provocation to debate – outward facing, trying to get people to share and to engage the uninitiated in argument. There was an interesting phenomenon which emerged during the campaign. The social media organisers would put a post out – for example, on immigration. For the first 10 minutes or so, Jeremy’s “core” supporters would agree approvingly. However, within 30 mins, some critical comments would start appearing and within an hour, the post would be a site of heated debate, the result of consecutive sharing. As admins, we didn’t attempt to manage that out of existence, but we welcomed it as a sign that we’d broken out of the bubble. Because of our experience of other social media campaigns, including Red Labour, we realised that trotting out a line is unlikely to get much traction. It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and, crucially, their action.

This methodology spread far beyond the ‘official’ output. What we saw was a massive flowering of people’s creativity, of people showing solidarity for each other – and reinforcing each other’s determination and strength in very trying circumstances. In turn, by the simple act of sharing, those examples of togetherness and the ideas that go with them spread to a much wider audience, even to those UKIP voters who had apparently been lost for ever. The principle is the same as in the outside world. You can have as many platform-heavy meetings as you want, but if you don’t do the groundwork of listening, engaging and nurturing the activists on the ground, you’ll still be doing the same thing in five, ten years and wondering why nothing solid has been built.

There’s a top down way to do social media (releasing news to your followers) and a grassroots way to do social media (using it is a forum for an activist-led movement). Used openly and with strategic sense, social media isn’t an echo chamber at all, but the most enormous consultation exercise the Labour Party and the movement around it has ever seen. It’s instant feedback on the party’s ideas, strategies and the way it does politics. Social media is about creating an alternative source of news and information which cuts out the vested interests of the established media, but it’s also, potentially, so much more than this. When Jeremy Corbyn talked about the “enormous democratic exercise”, he wasn’t just talking about the act of voting in the leadership ballot, but the whole piece. Are our social media projects perfect? No, obviously not. An analysis of where the Bernie Sanders campaign has taken the platforms is not the subject of this chapter , but just a cursory glance across the Atlantic shows that we have a long way to go, in organisation, output and resourcing. Of course there are problems with the use of social media and learning processes to go through, but does anyone believe that we would have had a Labour leadership selectorate of 550,000 in 2015 without the influence of social media? Far from being the end of the story, this is just the beginning, because social media offers us the most enormous opportunity to engage people we’d never have had a chance with even 5 years ago – people who have never voted before, those who walked away or have rejected the party for a variety of reasons as well as those who have voted differently, right across the spectrum.

Originally published on Academia.edu, here


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Ben Sellers

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