Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has four times more Twitter followers than Theresa May. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn has more Twitter followers than the entire cabinet.
Why does this matter? It is another indicator that Corbyn’s team understands how political communication is changing and the Tories do not.
One of the most striking features of this years’s general election was the way in which it demonstrated how rapidly the social media landscape shifts. In 2015 the Tory party under David Cameron had the best social media “game” thanks to a centralised and expensive team that cleverly targeted a series of disciplined messages about Ed Miliband’s weaknesses, the threat from the SNP and minority government, and George Osborne’s “long-term economic plan.” Labour duly got whipped on social media. It contributed to the Tory win.
Two years later, at short notice thanks to May’s close team springing an election, CCHQ tried to replicate what had worked previously, this time with far less successful results. The Tories lost seats in the election, and part of Jeremy Corbyn’s success was rooted in the way in which he and his team talked to voters and used social media, and large rallies (similarities with Trump there) amplified on Twitter and Facebook.
What happened? In 2015 it was still possible – just – with a large budget to flood timelines with sponsored posts delivered to target voters in narrow segments. Two years later, there has been a shift away from that top down approach. Consumer tastes have evolved. Think of it as a shift from vertical communication to the horizontal, a flattening of hierarchy in which users seek the affirmation and company of others who share their view.
There is a skill in making what is still to an extent organised centrally look spontaneous, but even allowing for Corbyn HQ directing some of it there is little doubt that the far left’s success on social media is down to the energetic involvement of the grassroots. Time and again Corbynite Labour demonstrates that it and its allies understand the revolutionary power of social media.
In that spirit, Niall Ferguson pointed out this week that Jeremy Corbyn has four times more followers on Twitter than Theresa May. It jolted me when he said it. It can’t be true? May is Prime Minister.
But, yes, of course it is true.
Corbyn has 1.53m followers and rising on Twitter. May has 400,000 followers on Twitter. Corbyn’s page on Facebook is liked by 1,374,440. May’s page on Facebook is liked by 443,610
Notice also that Corbyn – or his team, nonetheless reflecting his personality even if they are sending the tweets – has tweeted 8,752 times compared to 311 tweets from May’s account.
She’s busy running the country, of course, or fighting off Grant Shapps, and has better things to to do, perhaps. That is fine, up to a point, but if after the EU referendum, the US election 2016 and June 2017 in the UK, you think that social media is new fangled nonsense and that doing it badly has no impact on results then I suggest, humbly, that you need your head examined.
It is not just about the number of followers. There’s something else Corbyn does well. His account follows 2514 people – for some reason he even follows me, I notice, thus making me feel guilty for some, some, of what I write about him. He and/or his advisors seem to understand that social media is not just a tool for transmitting messages. When done well it is a two way process.
Theresa May on Twitter follows… no-one. Zero. No-one. Nobody. Zilch. It is a Twitter account that – like the account of journalist Peter Hitchens – only does transmission mode. There is not even a pretence of listening or of reading the tweets of others.
Oh, and inspired by Niall Ferguson’s observation I had someone check the number of Twitter followers of the UK cabinet. The total, including May, comes to 1,361,130. A couple have their tweets protected, meaning it is impossible to see but it seems unlikely given their identity that they have sufficient numbers to overhaul Corbyn’s total.
May, Boris (billed as a superstar), the Chancellor, the Defence Secretary, and all the rest have fewer people following them and listening to them on Twitter than one man, Corbyn.