During the run up to the 2015 General Election both parties’ online teams worked hard to influence the result. For example, Labour’s online effort supported the ground campaign to have more five million conversations with voters, while the Conservatives’ YouTube advertising delivered their campaign message to key voters in key seats. So how could the internet have helped Labour lose the election?
Over the weeks and months since the election senior Labour figures took to the airwaves or published their thoughts on the causes of Labour’s election defeat. While I will stay out of providing a critique of the different takes, a common refrain from Blair, Mandelson et al was that Labour’s retreat to its political comfort zone cost the party the election.
The filter bubble
We all know that the internet has radically changed how news and opinion is spread and consumed. The traditional story is that in the old media landscape the newspapers, TV and Radio stations were the gatekeepers controlling the flow of information. With the internet these groups have had their power checked, because people are able to find and create content themselves. While there is a lot of truth in this (just look at the influence Twitter has on the coverage of politics in the UK) there’s also an alternative take.
What most people aren’t aware of is that the likes of Facebook and Google are personalising what we see via complex algorithms. In the pursuit of relevance the results you see when you search in Google (and most search engines) are determined by a range of other factors beyond your search term. This list of factors and their relative weight will depend on which search engine you are using, but they include your location, the type of computer and browser you are using, what you have clicked on before, and what your friends have done.
In addition Facebook’s newsfeed is not just dependent on what your friends are saying. Here Facebook uses algorithms to display what it thinks is the most relevant content based on what you have previously clicked on and shared. So, if you don’t like what a ‘friend’ is saying and you don’t click on the links their post you will find that they soon disappear. This could easily distort the view of the world around us, by creating what Eli Pariser called the ‘filter bubble’. This filter bubble not only keeps different and challenging views away from our computer and smartphone screens, it does so in a way that means most of us aren’t even aware it is happening.
Labour’s comfort zone
While the motivation of Miliband’s approach to his manifesto was based on deeply-held views, did the filter bubble keep critical voices away from him and his team? Only they, their smartphones and computers know the truth. But what the filter bubble does mean is that while the Labour Party considers what to do next there is a risk that, online at least, their members and supporters will only be presented with information that confirms and supports the views that they already have. And that, of course, doesn’t make for the best starting point for making the right choice.