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Times Red Box: Fake Outrage not Enough to Galvanise Voters

Sat, 06 May 2017  |   Insights

By Jimmy Leach:  If the US election was characterised by fake news, then this general election may notable for its fake outrage.

As the campaign drags on, there is no real shift in the narrative - we’re all expecting a substantial Tory majority, to the point where the expectation may well be Theresa May’s biggest problem. If the electorate assumes that the local election results will be played out again, then they may simply stay at home. That’s unlikely to result in Jeremy Corbyn sauntering down Downing Street, but it might make for a smaller majority and store up problems for later.

So the Conservatives had to come up with something to stir the blood, and came up with this week’s manufactured drama of May kicking off her election campaign outside the door of Number 10 by declaring war on the enemies in Europe. The very ones that she spent last summer campaigning to Remain with, but who are now threats to our national interest. At one level, it’s all rather suburban: she had some dinner guests who were rather sneery about her summer plans, so she spent the rest of the week standing outside her front door slagging them off to anyone who would listen. The question now, of course, is who listened?

The social media analysis company Impact Social looked at posts, tweets and comments on social platforms and open news forums, removing the obvious political and media accounts and the re-tweets to get a feel for what the voters thought. And for all the talk and bluster, they barely noticed.

The bluster got the Tories more of the share of the conversation (210,000 mentions, easily outpacing Labour’s 143,000) but it hasn’t shifted emotions much. Compared to last week’s data, the positivity is down a notch in those tweets (from 17 per cent to 16 per cent), as is the negativity (27 per cent to 24 per cent). All that’s risen is the neutrality. The shrugging of digital shoulders.

The outrage didn’t really take off - in amongst the supportive posts, there was approving talk of May being a “bloody difficult woman” (13 per cent) and strong on Brexit (6 per cent) but the talk of a Labour shambles (19 per cent) and of a landslide victory (22 per cent) were far more dominant. May might feel the hand of complacency on her shoulder.

Antagonism towards the Tory party dominated the negative posts (36 per cent) and far outweighed those to May herself (20 per cent), which is why this campaign is so personalised. Anger over Brexit still resonated (15 per cent) and some possible fake news around a criminal investigation made some headway (9 per cent).

For Labour there has been no need to create a new enemy, there are plenty within. But even Diane Abbott’s bold attempts at sabotage this week barely shifted the dial. The positive sentiment around the party fell a little (from 19 per cent to 16 per cent), as did the negativity (also down 3 per cent to 23 per cent). The victor was indifference as neutral posts stood at 61 per cent.

Strangely, Ms Abbott’s interview was viewed as less damaging than Mr Corbyn’s character, with 5 per cent of negative posts to 20 per cent, although “laughing stock” with 7 per cent may be shared between them. The biggest theme in the downbeat posts is simply that they “can’t win” (23 per cent), have “no campaign” (5 per cent) and lag in the polls (7 per cent). The positivity centred around the run-up to the local elections. Look how that turned out.

Out of all the main UK-wide parties, the Liberal Democrats had perhaps the best week. They had the highest positive numbers (27 per cent) and the lowest negative, albeit from a much smaller share of the voice (38,000 posts). There are doubts about Tim Farron’s character (nearly a third of the negative posts), exacerbated perhaps by the weird “smell my dog” incident (16 per cent). On the plus side, the attacks on the Tories (12 per cent), the campaign message (15 per cent), policies (13 per cent) and the levels of support and membership (22 per cent and 9 per cent) all seem to be landing.

For Ukip, the share of the noise remained relatively high (30,000) but the positivity dropped even further to just 4 per cent. Success in these terms is actually in the neutral rating - at 82 per cent it shows their burqa ban is at least normalised. It’s not liked (21 per cent of negative posts) and has fuelled talk of them being racist (18 per cent), and ridicule, for Ukip, always scores well (38 per cent).

Nothing in the figures shows anything more than a plod towards predictability. If all the Tories are worried about is the scale of their victory, then it’s a luxury that the other parties daren’t dream of. The failure to make inroads against a lacklustre Tory campaign, combined with the local election results, begins to look like an existential crisis for both, while the Lib Dems just need to keep the dog in the kennel to expect some small gains. If this campaign has a surprise in it, we’ve yet to see any hint of it. Someone might just have to make one up.

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital communications in Downing Street