Followers matter for political parties, with the audiences they can accumulate important not only for the impact of their messages directly, but also because followers can further spread information online and offline. The Facebook followers of leader and party pages of UK political parties from 2010 to 2021 are examined.
Post Corbyn, the Conservatives are now dominating.
Followership growth has stalled for almost all the parties, with only leaders seeing rapid growth.
Keir Starmer is struggling to grow an audience.
Some parties such as the Green Party have not grown in followership since 2018.
Facebook had stopped growing in the UK. Facebook followers of political parties has grown recently, but audience growth is stagnant.
Why followership matters
Followership and virtual membership
Parties will not be consistently reaching the entire Facebook population with their organic communications, instead they will primarily influence closer-networked followers and interested users. A follower is a person who has chosen to receive updates from a page they follow, with posts from this page being placed in their news feed (subject to the Facebook algorithm). Although it is still not clear exactly what it means to ‘follow’ or to ‘like’ a party or an individual, there is a strength to these actions, as these engagement relationships are public to the user’s network of friends, and thus are actions that are both personal and public. There is therefore an instrumental value within the action of following. Nevertheless, the scale of this value is uncertain and further research needs to be done on what type of political relationship it describes.
The number of followers a page has is important for several reasons; followers can be mobilised online and offline akin to official members, followers through sharing expand information dissemination capacities with followers’ friends potentially disseminating information further. Followers are therefore powerful, they spread messages with their own personal approval and often with their own twist on the messages campaign information. As Elizabeth Linder former UK Facebook politics manager asserted; “people don’t trust campaigns…. they trust their friends".
It is important to consider that different types of party pages exist in how parties’ campaign on Facebook. This article examines party and leader pages as they are the biggest political pages. Given their scale these pages most accurately represent any party virtual membership seen online. This contrasts with the smaller followership’s accumulated by local and satellite pages, which do not represent the potential of virtual membership as effectively. It is also likely someone who follows a local/satellite page will follow a party or leader page, thus making these pages the best proxy for examining virtual membership.
Followers (as also studied via interested users) are conceptualised as ‘virtual members’. This concept of virtual membership stands as a third position of activism for parties. As a middle ground between official membership and general interest, virtual membership describes a group who are mainly not official members but are still connected and can be organised. This new human resource is a lynchpin of any impact Facebook can have, because of their potential to campaign on a party’s behalf or be organised for online and offline campaigning. It also represents the realisation of elements of Margetts’ ideas of the ‘cyber party’ (2001) with the breakdown of barriers between members and non-members. This is important as most parties’ virtual members are not party members. British Election Study data shows an average of 24% of the respondents who gave a Party ID across the studied parties follow candidates or parties on the platform (BES 2017 Campaign Wave 12, n=17,415).
Organic communications and social influence
Some scholars originally asserted that social media supporters are ineffective for campaigning because of their “politically partisan” social groupings, lack of non-partisan interpersonality (Rainie, Smith, Schlozman, Brady, 2012) and damaging levels of homophily (Grevet, Terveen & Gilbert, 2014). However, this academic position has been shifting towards a position that argues online social media communications are not as heterogeneous as previously envisaged (Barbera et al., 2015), with real potentials to activate supporters on and offline (Bale, Webb & Poletti, 2018). Having a large virtual membership thus presents clear opportunities to parties, even when partisan. Although Facebook virtual members have not received examination, in the wider literature some studies have examined the similar phenomenon of non-member supporters (Webb et al., 2017). Webb estimates that there are 8,852,903 million ‘supporters’ of UK political parties who are not official members. This support closely matches the 8,049,920 followers and the 9,695,000 interested users found on the Facebook platform in 2019. This group of un-official support is important as “at the aggregate level, campaign work done by supporters matches that done by party members” (Webb et al., 2017, p.64).
Given the huge difference in numbers between official membership and supporters, there is real value in cultivating and using unofficial support, because this is where the majority of activism occurs from on Facebook. The potential to convert online users to offline campaigners is an unparalleled resource unseen in any other tool. The high activism rate of supporters on Facebook represents an opportunity for parties, but also indicates a fundamentally different landscape for party organisation.
Facebook followership across the the last decade
The best available data upon the number of followers of the pages over time is used. Access to data is problematic, thus figures used present an amalgamation of data from roughly similar periods (within 3-4 months), taken from a combination of journalism, Google image searches of the pages at the specified time, the Wayback-machine (a website that saves websites over time) and academic articles. Given the benefits of having a large diverse follower base, political parties have spent years building support bases for their party and party leader pages. This has occurred through organic support growth or other means such as advertisements, as seen in claims levelled against David Cameron ‘buying’ followers in 2014.
Party page Facebook followers (2010-2021)
So what followers have the parties achieved over the last decade on Facebook? Across their party pages and current (and former) leader pages we can see a clear domination of a few parties and individuals. At the front are Labour and the Conservatives, with Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson the most important leaders in the UK, while for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has a strong audience.
Table 1 - Followers of UK party and leader pages 2010-2021
Table 1 shows a comparison of follower numbers for the leader and party pages of the 8 most important political parties. From late 2010 to 2019 followership increased 2,572% across all the pages. The rise in followers seen cannot be wholly linked to the increase in the UK Facebook population, as in 2010 Facebook boasted of 26 million UK users, meaning that Facebook from 2010 to 2018 has only seen a 54% increase in userbase.
Looking specifically at the party pages we can see in the graph below how the follower levels have developed over time, only the SNP, Reform Party (Brexit Party), Conservatives and Labour are continuing to grow. All the other parties are stuck with their followership, the Green Party for example have not grown since 2018, while UKIP is actually going backwards. The Conservative Party page is slowing starting to finally challenge the domination of the Labour Party page.
Graph 1 - Followers of UK party pages 2010-2021
Online virtual membership started slowly with political parties on Facebook in 2010 a minority pursuit. Party membership dwarfed online followership, with usage of Facebook partially a gimmick or used to drive website traffic. ‘Social media was important, but mainly in creating ‘buzz’… to drive people to websites where they could lay out their wares’ (Newman, 2010, p.1). Craig Elder, former Conservative Digital director highlights a skin-deep appreciation; ‘we wanted to show people we were smart and clever… we wanted to show them shiny things” (Ross, 2015). However, by 2017 usage and implementation was ubiquitous. Two important trends are visible in followership, first is the radical rise in followers from 2010-2015, second is the slowdown in followership growth after 2018. The data suggests that offline political events, growing political interest by Facebook users and potential Facebook developments spurred growth. While recently as shown in Graph 2, growth is only powered by leadership change. Since 2019, we have seen only Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage continue to grow their old pages.
Graph 2 - Followers of Labour and Conservative (+Farage) leader pages 2010-2021
Normalisation versus equalization?
The nature of support on the platform also offers insight into the question of normalisation or equalisation. As Lev-On & Haleva-Amir assert; “the equalization hypothesis claims that Internet platforms predominantly aid peripheral and marginal players… conversely, the normalization hypothesis suggests that online activity will eventually reward established and dominant players” (2018, p.1). In terms of Facebook followers, one would expect to see a clear trend in numbers towards Conservative and Labour supremacy, or the splintering of support across the smaller parties.
Table 2 - Follower numbers of; Labour and Conservative party and leader pages, and UKIP, SNP, Liberal Democrat and Green party pages
Table 2 shows that 2015 saw the greatest degree of equalisation in online virtual membership bases across both party and leader pages. The Conservative and Labour pages only had 39,613 more followers than UKIP, SNP, Liberal Democrats and Green Party combined. This supports studies such as Southern & Lee (2019) who found peripheral parties highly active on Facebook at the time. This trend was also reflected in the 2015 General Election where smaller parties received a larger segment of the popular vote than ever before (Audickas et al., 2017).
Although the equalisation trend is visible in 2015, followership by 2018 returned to the two-party norm seen from 2010-2013 (in large part due to Labour’s growth). Since 2015 the Labour and Conservative parties have seen their followership grow to a 1 million lead over the smaller parties. However rather than a clear trend towards normalisation over the last decade, there has been consistent volatility between followership levels of smaller and larger parties. Social media is not a stable influence on either a normalisation or equalisation process. Although we recently see a stabilising normalisation trend that has accelerated into 2021, positions are in flux. The literature also finds social media leading to equalisation and normalisation. Across similar time periods, Gibson & McAllister (2015) and Samuel-Azran, Yarchi & Wolfsfeld (2015) asserted equalisation, whereas Van Aelst et al. (2017) found normalisation. Overall, there is a clear trend of follower supremacy for the UK’s two major political parties, however the two main party’s hegemony should not be taken for granted as followership can fluctuate enormously.
Are there more virtual members than official member's?
Is the body of virtual members larger than official membership? Clearly yes, although there are growth problems, as Graph 3 shows there is a huge scale of followership far larger than official membership. Today over 8 million people, 1 in 5 UK Facebook users, follow one of the examined party or party leader pages. The parties have access to a body of virtual members that are interested in party politics, but who are not willing to be official paying members. The capacity to reach these individuals, and subsequently socialise and potentially mobilise them, is something fundamentally new for campaign teams.
Graph 3 - Party followers of UK pages vs official party member numbers 2018
Declining growth, a stagnant Facebook
Although virtual membership is a new opportunity for parties, followership growth and retention is slowing. This is reflected in engagement, which will be subsequently examined.
Graph 4 - Current party leader followers of UK pages 2010-2021
Even though Facebook use has continued to grow, the fact we have seen recent low growth in political followership, with most growth only occurring via Boris Johnson since 2019 (Graph 4), this speaks to a new landscape for parties’ campaigns.
If we are witnessing the end of ever-increasing organic reach this creates new challenges for the parties on the platform. Parties will need to seek new followers from reducing circles of new users, battle for new audiences from within the large group of less politically interested Facebook users, or contest for those who are already engaged with others political pages. With an inability to increase followership into new younger demographics, a stagnant online support base suggests the increased need for targeted advertisements and other tools to reach and activate voters. Finally, if reflective of wider trends, it may be the signal of the stagnation of Facebook itself, a process which will see the platform reinvent itself.
Facebook's audiences across the developed world have reached saturation level, with this likely to change how parties use the platform. Margetts’ (2001) cyber party model asserted that the internet would create a more fluid relationship between parties and internet users. This would see hugely reduced costs for participation, with organisation refreshed through the reformulation of meetings and canvassing through online means. This body of online support could engender “virtual belonging towards the specific online group enhanced by the possibility of interacting directly with likeminded people” (Bartlett et al., 2013, p.11). The potentials of the cyber party are numerous on paper; however, to have a cyber-party you must have virtual members. Facebook allows parties to not only ‘preach to the converted' (Norris, 2003), but also ‘preach through the converted’ (Vissers, 2009) across election campaigns and permanently. Parties are now able to reach, inform and engender millions of UK residents who would not likely sign up to formal party membership, to be ‘virtual members’. These audiences and virtual members are younger and more diverse than official membership.
Facebook has helped parties develop a new group of supporters that is far more representative of the wider UK and Facebook population than official membership. The virtual members examined are younger and more female, offering a huge opportunity for party renewal in an era where party membership skews towards older males. This group of supporters is an important tool for parties’ campaigns as activism rates are high (Webb et al., 2017) and numbers large. This was seen at the 2017 General Election, as former press adviser to David Cameron, Giles Kenningham, asserted “Labour’s very polished social media presence… worked. It energised people and got the base out” (Guardian, 2017). Labour’s development of offline action via participation saw the party “channel their social media-enabled activism into party politics and to integrate it with face-to-face doorstep campaigning” (Chadwick, 2017, p.87). This novel resource is very real; however how virtual members are being used is still unclear. There are important differences found across and within the parties. The platform appears to offer opportunities for smaller parties in generating online support; normalisation or equalisation in the scale of support (followership and engagement) appears to fluctuate. However, in general the continued dominance of the main two parties on Facebook is apparent.
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