17 Aug 2015

How Jeremy Corbyn is winning the social media battle

The Labour hopeful is storming ahead of rivals on Twitter and Facebook but some of his purported supporters have come under criticism for being aggressive to critics

Did you hear the one about the socialist lion who walks into a bar? If you are a Jeremy Corbyn supporter you almost certainly have.

With parody accounts such as @corbynjokes poking gentle fun at the potential leader and official Corbyn followers climbing each day, the left-wing firebrand has been building momentum on Twitter.

With 107,000 followers, he has 30,000 more than his closest Labour rival Andy Burnham.

The Facebook stats are no better for the Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall camps. Mr Corbyn has 71,849 followers for his official account, another 60,000 follow his leadership campaign account and 17,000 more have used the site to promise their vote to him in the Labour elections.

As Facebook posts are proven to have far more reach than those on Twitter, this will be scary reading.

The team behind the Liz Kendall page remains uncowed, still regularly posting pictures of the MP at nurseries and advertisements for coffee mornings to their 7,027 followers.

And although the Corbyn online campaign is ubiquitous – the #jezwecan was being shared once every 25 seconds at one point – the experience of “Corbynites” on Twitter is not universally positive. Some report that a gang mentality is emerging among users.

Jason Sinclair, a corporate copywriter who set up @corbynjokes with a friend, had a heartening experience at first – until things turned nasty.

He told Channel 4 News: “I think the response on Twitter has been quite heartening and interesting – when I started I don’t think that anyone knew what perspective the account was coming from.

“Some people thought it was from the Kendall campaign, some thought it was the Daily Mail writing it and some thought it was the Corbyn camp.”

The jokes, he said, were not supposed to be coming from any political perspective, but, he admits, they were an attempt to “take the piss out of his earnestness”.

The Twitter account now has over 20,000 followers and the political position is clearer – Mr Sinclair is a Labour supporter who thinks the party will not get into government if Mr Corbyn becomes leader.

At the beginning many of Mr Corbyn’s supporters got in touch to say they enjoyed the jokes, but as the days went on the comments began to turn.

“I got more and more abuse from the left, from that kernel of fellow travellers that have latched on the Corbyn campaign,” he said.

“I know what comments on the internet are like, and it is to be expected, but really the comments coming from self-professed Corbynites were really crazy, sometimes abusive.”

Despite the anger, he says that abusive or otherwise, the Corbyn campaign is dominant across social media.

“From what I have seen there is a much stronger campaign for Corbyn. There are a lot that is reminiscent of the cyber nationalists we saw at the referendum.

“[Cooper and Burnham] haven’t harnessed it at all, as far as I can see – partly because there is more passion from Corbyn supporters, because it is challenging the status quo more, and because of they feel more of a gang mentality and a moral righteousness, which you just don’t have if you are soberly looking at the future prospects of the Labour party.”

Counterfire, a political blog showcasing members of trade unions, student movements, and protest campaigns, has been instrumental in the campaign for Mr Corbyn’s leadership by organising and attending rallies.

Feyzi Ismail, commissioning editor of Counterfire, told Channel 4 News negative comments on social media from Corbyn supporters are not a “serious trend”, but that those rallying around him are using the medium as a line of defence from critics.

She says: “They will defend, and they will defend in their own ways. They might not always think through the way they defend, and this might not always be productive.

“But I do think that at some point you do have to, and you can’t just say you are going to, defend what you believe in. Because it is not just all peace and love. There are the likes of Tony Blair who would like to destroy Corbyn.

“You have to remain political on social media as elsewhere, not personal. But you have to make it clear that there are things we will not compromise on.”

This engagement on social media is actually nothing new for Mr Corbyn – he is the longest serving tweeter of the candidates, joining the site in February 2010.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Richard Osley, political blogger and deputy editor of the Islington Tribune and Camden New Journal, says Mr Corbyn’s campaign benefits from the fact the Islington MP knows how to just be normal on Twitter – and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks.

“Corbyn himself has used Twitter for several years, in contrast to say Glenda [Jackson] and Frank [Dobson] who are a similar age. In recent weeks, his feed is a bit more formal for obvious reason, but I remember him tweeting about Arsenal matches in the past.

“The politicians who do Twitter best are the ones who approach with a relaxed style, not frightened by it and not feeling the need to tweet an achievement two seconds after achieving it.

“That always makes a politician look like they only visited the school or the meeting with residents so they could tweet the fact they were there.”

Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham, Mr Osley says, don’t go viral because they don’t say anything worth sharing.

He adds: “Corbyn benefits from his clarity, whether you agree with him or not. Who wants to retweet or Facebook share a bland platitude or a picture of a candidate visiting a school you have no connection with? Cooper and Burnham struggle to get the same traction because they plot such a steady course.

But he warns Corbyn should take note from Labour’s general election results which suggests the power of the social media revolution may not be all it is cracked up to be.

“In Southampton Itchen, the candidate Rowenna Davis had a full page in the Guardian the week before the election going on about her amazing e-campaigning and internet stuff. It was a key target seat,” he adds. “The Tory with the broken website won.”