Making social science accessible

08 Jun 2017

Politics and Society

The parties, and their leaders, have been trying to shape the public debate about the General Election – but what does this debate actually look like? To investigate, we used a set of 56 keywords related to the General Election to collect tweets on various topics.

The tweets were retrieved between 29 April and 4 June, and the keywords consisted of hashtags, accounts, and terms representing phrases from the election campaigns (e.g. #GE2017, general elections), the politicians involved in the elections (Theresa May, Corbyn, #jc4pm), and related topics (e.g. Brexit, NHS).

During the period of study, over 34 million posts were collected: 9.6 million tweets and 25 million retweets. Figure 1 illustrates the volume of tweets/retweets collected daily during the period of study.

Figure 1: Distribution of the collected tweets/retweets over the period of study

Peaks in the Twitter data can readily be associated with events – such as the 5 May local elections and the Manchester bombing (with an associated drop in GE2017 posting as the campaigns paused in its aftermath). Figure 2 shows how the spikes in the Twitter data are often closely linked to major media events (like the TV debates), and are strongly influenced by the official hashtags promoted by the media companies.

Hashtags like these have a significant impact on the shape of the data collected from Twitter and might distort studies with short data-collection windows but are usually short-lived with little long term impact on the Twitter conversation. This can also be the case for hashtags associated with external events. We can see, for example, peaks of discussion on both the #NHSCyberAttack and the #LondonAttacks.

Brexit has been the issue of the GE2017 campaign, eclipsing even the NHS. We can see that while other policy issues peak for only a short time and fall out of favour, Brexit has provided a consistent backdrop to the GE2017 conversation. It has rarely dropped out of the top three most popular hashtags in the last month.


Figure 2: Hashtags that peaked on a given day on Twitter during the study period

Table 1 shows the number of times the various hashtags were used. Brexit is overall the fourth most common hashtag employed (935,456). It is the top policy issue and is employed more than twice as often as the next issue of significance, the NHS (420,092).

Table 1: Top 20 Hashtag Categories Used throughout the Election Debate (the top 100 hashtags were grouped by topic and the top 20 topics selected)

Top Hashtags Grouped as Number of Hashtags
#GE2017, #GE17, #GeneralElection, #GeneralElection2017, #Election2017 General Election 3,624,566
#BBCQT, #marr, #Peston, #r4today, #NewsNight, #BBCSP, #VictoriaLIVE, #BBCDP, #WomansHour, #TheOneShow TV/Radio 1,195,880
#VoteLabour, #Labour, #ImVotingLabour Labour 1,062,908
#Brexit Brexit 935,456
#BBCDebate, #BattleForNumber10, #ITVDebate, #LeadersDebate, #MayvCorbyn Hustings / Debates 844,514
#JC4PM, #Corbyn, #JeremyCorbyn Corbyn 503,307
#NHS, #VoteNHS, #SaveOurNHS NHS 420,092
#Tories, #Tory, #conservatives, #conservatives, #VoteConservative, #conservative Conservatives 381,647
#TheresaMay, #May May 302,494
#ForTheMany, #ForTheManyNotTheFew For the Many 271,251
#voteSNP, #SNP SNP 244,481
#ToryManifesto Tory Manifesto 214,973
#ScotRef, #indyref2, #Scotland Scottish referendum 176,382
#ToriesOut Tories Out 172,380
#RegistertoVote, #Vote, #WhyVote, #Register2Vote Register to vote 165,757
#Manchester, #Londonattacks, #LondonBridge, #London Terrorist Attacks 154,497
#DementiaTax, #Socialcare Social Care 154,007
#LabourManifesto Labour Manifesto 149,731
#UKIP UKIP 141,011
#BBCElection, #BBC BBC 124,755


Figure 3: Percentage Share of Top 20 Hashtags Used in the Election Debate

The data show how pro-Labour sentiment dominates the Twitter conversation around GE2017. Given the UK-wide nature of a Westminster election, there is also a disproportionate presence of the Scottish National Party.

Tweets using hashtags do not necessarily indicate support but do highlight areas of discussion. With over one million tweets using Labour hashtags in our data set, Labour party coverage out-performs Conservative coverage by almost three times. There are no tweets employing anti-Labour hashtags in our top twenty most used hashtags collection. There are twice as many Labour (1,062,908) as Corbyn hashtags in the tweets (503,307).

However, Corbyn hashtags, in sixth position on the list, still significantly outperform May hashtags (302,494), in ninth place. The pro-Labour momentum is boosted by the widespread use of Labour-promoted hashtags such as #forthemany, #forthemanynotthefew. The disproportionate presence of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in eleventh place (244,481), given that only Scottish voters can elect this party, was striking. The Liberal Democrats do not figure in the top twenty hashtags, but UKIP appears at number nineteen (141,011).

Table 2: Top Retweeted and Top Mentioned Twitter Accounts

Top retweeted accounts Top mentioned accounts
Account Count Account Count
@jeremycorbyn 821,499 @jeremycorbyn 1,367,392
@laboureoin 426,912 @theresa_may 654,417
@nhsmillion 342,440 @uklabour 323,027
@rachael_swindon 290,587 @conservatives 307,550
@owenjones84 224,605 @bbcnews 154,898
@socialistvoice 189,830 @thesnp 145,937
@jeremycorbyn4pm 186,269 @nicolasturgeon 116,360
@davidjo52951945 178,768 @skynews 97,287
@uklabour 171,577 @libdems 93,473
@davidschneider 164,457 @ukip 80,885
@jamesmelville 162,626 @thecanarysays 80,176
@chunkymark 161,681 @bbclaurak 77,324
@toryfibs 146,873 @ruthdavidsonmsp 69,334
@independent 139,540 @timfarron 69,009
@el4jc 119,623 @lbc 65,571
@britainelects 115,655 @yougov 62,741
@paulmasonnews 108,302 @borisjohnson 61,292
@imajsaclaimant 108,130 @guardian 58,880
@aaronbastani 101,101 @afneil 52,216
@peterstefanovi2 99,875 @johnmcdonnellmp 49,271


Turning to individual users’ accounts we can see more detail. Jeremy Corbyn tops the lists of most mentioned and most retweeted accounts (Table 2). Though Theresa May (654,417) is the second most mentioned account, she is mentioned only half as often as Corbyn (1,367,392).

Both leaders are mentioned much more often than their respective parties, perhaps confirming the presidential tenor of the campaign. Striking once again is the disproportionate presence of the SNP (145,937) and their leader Nicola Sturgeon (116,360) in sixth and seventh place in this UK wide debate.

The SNP outperforms the Liberal Democrats (93,473) and their leader Tim Farron (69,009). Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party leader, Ruth Davidson (69,334), is also mentioned marginally more often than Tim Farron. UKIP (80,855) is the tenth most mentioned account, but Paul Nuttal does not feature.


Figure 4. Mentions that peaked on a given day on Twitter during the study period

@jeremycorbyn has been mentioned much more frequently than @theresamay throughout the GE2017 campaign. The three political parties with daily peaks scoring in the top three mentions are @conservatives, @uklabour and again @theSNP.

Of course, Twitter is not representative of the voting public as a whole, and therefore not necessarily a clear reflection of “the many, not the few”. However, whilst Twitter cannot be used to predict elections and the overwhelming support we see for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn may not be fully reflected in the ballot boxes, it is a useful tool in helping us gauge the mood of those who are motivated enough to comment in social media.

Tweeters are typically highly motivated and perhaps those who initially see themselves as the underdogs in the debate, excluded from mainstream coverage. This has been apparent in a number of recent campaigns. The YES campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, dominated social media in the Scottish independence referendum. Leave groups did the same in the 2016 Brexit campaign and Trump’s dominance in social media transformed US election coverage, with both these campaigns ultimately triumphing at the polls.

As a recent Loughborough study shows, Corbyn’s campaign did not initially enjoy the access to the traditional media that May was afforded [1]. This may explain the surge in social media activity that subsequently developed a life of its own and has ultimately had to be acknowledged by the mainstream media.

This also fits with the high presence of the SNP in our data set, with the Scottish debate marginalised at the UK level. If the current polling is to be believed Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to fair as badly as was anticipated when the election was first called. Traditional media sources were slow to pick up on this change in public opinion whereas this trend could be seen early on in social media and throughout the month of May.

Laura Cram is Professor of European politics and Director of the NRLabs Neuropolitics Research centre; Clare Llewellyn is a Research Associate and member of the Institute for Language, Cognition and Computation; Robin Hill is a Lecturer in Cognitive Science; and Walid Magby is a Lecturer in Multimedia Information Retrieval. All four work at the University of Edinburgh.


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