The internet bubble is back. Did it ever leave us? New findings from the Oxford Internet Institute tell us that Labour dominates online political discourse as the election campaign rumbles towards it’s close on June 8. Nonetheless, we must not be fooled into a false sense of hope. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s striking impression of Lazarus over the past seven weeks, the Left has been taken on this journey before. It must remember how painful the destination can be.
The research in question focuses on Twitter, tracking the amount of activity relating to each political party through the use of hashtags in the final week of May. It found that tweets mentioning Labour made up over 62 per cent of those specifically relating to the UK parties, signalling what some might see as a massive surge in support. The findings follow an original report from the first week of that month, which already had Labour at nearly 40 per cent, with the Conservatives trailing on 26 per cent.
Without the context of the last few years, one could be forgiven for mistaking this as a glimmer of light at the end of the gruelling electoral tunnel. Corbyn has indeed staged an unexpected fightback, with various polls reporting a swell of support following strong performances in televised debates and interviews. Subsequently, Theresa May has been forced onto the back foot, a position from which she has not impressed the media.
The ‘strong and stable’ slogan has been jettisoned, she has been laughed at by live television audiences and has overseen two major terrorist attacks which put the scrutiny firmly on her competency as Home Secretary in previous governments. If everyone is now talking about Labour, it might appear that they have a chance. Besides, all publicity is good publicity — right?
Wrong. Let us not forget that the Conservative Party has fought this campaign on one battlefield: Brexit, and Labour’s perceived inability to execute it with success. Their intention has been to drive debate away from the shortcomings of their own successive governments, and towards the alternative: a party which has been in disarray since the day its current leader was elected.
However, even more pertinently, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the same trap that has ensnared Britain’s liberal left several times over the past few years. There seemed to be real hope when Ed Miliband caught up in the polls prior to the 2015 general election; he crashed out to the backdrop of a sneering Jeremy Paxman enjoying his ill-conceived retirement hobby of election night ‘satire’ on Channel 4. Then, this time last year, nobody seriously thought we would vote ourselves out of the EU, which Ian McEwan recently described as ‘the most extraordinary, ambitious, liberal political alliance in recorded history’. We (they) did.
On both counts, we were blind to what the electorate was really thinking. The only political conversation many saw — or bothered to see — was that taking place among Facebook friends and those we followed on Twitter. It is now well-trodden (and well sodden … with remainers’ tears) ground that when we ignore and suppress the other side of the debate, it ends badly. The silent majority has shown us time and time again that we cannot put our trust merely in what is happening within the social media echo chambers of our own opinions.
The older generation may not have, for the most part, spewed its agenda into cyberspace in the same way that the youth might. But they turned up and voted — and won. There are clear echoes in the relationship between this election and the aforementioned research. Labour may well be dominating the conversation online, but in the real world we see their candidates wary of even mentioning the party leader on the campaign, and lifelong Labour voters turning to the Conservatives.
There lies an obvious discrepancy between the research and Labour’s continuing underdog status as we approach polling day. It looks like yet another indication that the infamous internet bubble, that so misled liberal expectations of recent elections, is set to return with a vengeance. Though it is difficult to begrudge those refusing to give up hope, we would do well to heed the words of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: ‘Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth’. Fast-forward nearly two millennia, and this is more relevant than ever.