The main parties are fighting a fierce battle on social media platforms. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

UK election 2019: video the big battleground as main parties go head to head for hearts and minds

The use of Facebook to distribute digital video to voters is proving to be a key battlefield in the UK’s 2019 election campaign so far, with all the parties uploading several videos a day. During the second week of the campaign, several high-performing viral videos have been released by the official party accounts or by the Facebook accounts belonging to the party leaders.

The importance of video as a tool for reaching voters is underlined by the effort parties are putting into the production of video content and the amount of money being spent on advertising to put their content before voters.

In the 2017 election, the most watched videos, including a Conservative attack ad on Jeremy Corbyn’s national security peaked at just under eight million views on Facebook. To date, nothing has reached that level – but the most successful Facebook videos are still reaching millions of users.

Table 1: most watched videos on Facebook 29/10/2019 –18/11/2019 (Note: Facebook records views to the nearest 100 below 1,000,000 and to the nearest 100,000 above). Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

It should be noted the Conservative Party scored a major success with its election broadcast: 12 Questions for Boris. At the time of writing, this is the most-watched political video on Twitter with 4.5 million views.

But when it comes to Facebook, despite being uploaded to several different posts and accounts, it didn’t get the same traction as it had on Twitter. Having said that, if you added together all the views across all the different accounts it would have made it into the Facebook top ten. Just.

Facebook is proving to be a key battleground in UK Election 2019. Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

There’s a struggle going on for dominance on Facebook. A look at the posting activity of the political party accounts shows that, unlike in 2017 when Labour dominated the platform, no party has yet gained a clear advantage in the number of videos being uploaded.

When it comes to the personalities themselves, Boris Johnson and Corbyn are out in front of the other party leaders in the number and regularity of their posting to Facebook. That’s important because both are more popular on Facebook than their respective party accounts. Corbyn has 1,536,855 Facebook followers, compared with just 1,049,000 for the party as a whole. Johnson, meanwhile has 768,427, substantially more than his party, which can boast only 690,910.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have been particularly prolific on Facebook in the first two weeks of the campaign. Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

The relative importance of different policy areas can also be understood by the ways in which the parties are using Facebook video. The Conservatives have attempted to define the election as a choice about Brexit and this can clearly be seen by the policy areas that the party’s video content tackles. Boris Johnson’s campaign launch speech in Downing Street has been posted in full and key sections edited and reposted, with dramatic cutaway shots and set to an upbeat soundtrack. His key theme of getting Brexit done is repeated again and again to drive home the message that this is the defining issue of the election.

The impact of Johnson’s focus on Brexit as a policy issue can be seen in this chart, which shows the areas of focus of the videos posted to his account since October 29. Brexit posts vastly outstrip any other theme.

Boris Johnson’s policy focus is firmly fixed on Brexit. Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

For Labour, however, there is little attempt to engage with the Brexit issue – unless it is to accuse the government of incompetence or Boris Johnson of lying.

Labour has a more complex position on Brexit than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. As such, it has tried to focus its video content on other policies. It has attempted to address a range of policy areas that appeal to different parts of its constituency – the NHS, austerity, workers’ rights, climate change and youth issues have all been subjects of video content as the party pushes to move the debate away from Brexit and onto issues where it has a clearer appeal to voters.

Corbyn the campaigner

During the 2017 election, Labour had considerable success with videos of Corbyn campaigning and addressing crowds of people, notably with videos posted of him making a speech at the home of Tranmere Rovers in Birkenhead or with pictures of the crowds singing to him at Glastonbury.

The party has attempted to repeat this successful formula again – and, in many of these videos, policy discussion is avoided in favour of giving a taste of the excitement of the campaign. These videos aim to energise supporters and, as in 2017, demonstrate the crossover between the real-world campaigning and the social media campaign. They aim to build a narrative of an exciting social movement on the verge of taking power.

This desire to reframe the debate in the election is also apparent in the policy areas engaged with in the videos posted on Corbyn’s account. Austerity and the impact of Conservative spending restraint on the NHS is highlighted time and again. The videos aim to demonstrate the failures of Conservative rule and present Corbyn as a political leader who is capable of bringing real and lasting change to the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn has tried to broaden Labour’s campaign away from a Brexit focus. Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

Sophisticated messages for ‘ordinary voters’

The parties are using a range of different styles of video to get their message across to voters. Some are highly produced pieces of political advertising that aim to get across key messages with a combination of text, music and video, often showing slightly slowed pictures of “ordinary voters”. Others are films produced by the parties themselves with a political leader talking directly to camera about an issue. Corbyn, in particular, is good at this style of video, appearing relaxed and in control when addressing the camera. But it is also a style of video that is used by the Conservatives too.

caption goers in here and in here and in here. Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

The Labour party has also adopted the tactic it successfully deployed in 2017, of creating animated policy explainers.

These have also been accompanied by more meme-style explainers too – particularly for their policy of nationalisation of broadband provision.

On the attack

The attack ad is also proving popular with both Labour and the Conservatives. Both tend to use party accounts rather than the leaders’ accounts to host attack ads. No doubt this is to allow the leaders’ to deliver positive messages emphasising their respective visions for the country. The Labour Party, in particular, has used its account to deliver attack ads focusing on both the impact of Conservative policy and the character of leading politicians, especially Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Labour’s offering is a mix of attack ads and policy explainers, Matt Walsh/Cardiff University, Author provided (No reuse)

All the political parties have been keen to use clips from broadcast media where it has supported their views on a policy. The Conservatives have made heavy use of clips from broadcast television of Labour politicians struggling to articulate the party’s policies, especially with regard to Brexit. Clips branded “car-crash” interviews with Good Morning Britain presenters have often performed well.

Finally, when considering the video content that is performing well on Facebook, it is striking that it is films that demand an emotional response that are driving engagement from users. Anger, pity, humour and pride are all emotional drivers for the most successful content. While the parties are still trying to explain policy, it is clear that the most viewed video posts are those that appeal to users’ hearts as well as to their minds.


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