A trove of Facebook reaction data shows that right wing parties have become adept at using anger to outperform their left leaning rivals on the social media platform.
Britain First and UKIP have won more reactions than other parties combined, and get more ‘angry’ reactions to posts than other parties. Labour gets the most ‘love’ reactions. While in Scotland, the SNP dwarfs its nearest rival, the Scottish Conservative Party on Facebook.
At the start of 2016, Facebook announced that it would allow its users to respond to messages posted on the platform using a range of six different emotions.
Where previously people could only ‘like’ a post, from February 2016, users could respond using emoticons representing like, love, sad, wow, ha ha, and angry.
The Ferret used the Facebook Page API – a means of accessing bulk information on the social network – to have a look at which emotions the official political party presences generated on the social network in aggregate.
Our analysis shows that there are big differences in the type, and quantity, of emotional responses that different political parties receive to their Facebook messages.
Experts have warned that the data shows that far right parties on Facebook have adopted tactics that may be “overwhelming” people exposed to their messages – giving people a false impression of the relative support for their views and inhibiting people’s willingness to debate controversial topics in a nuanced way.
Dr Ben Marder, of the University of Edinburgh Business School has previously studied the strategies employed by political parties on Facebook.
He acknowledged that Facebook was “important for electoral success,” but warned political parties trying to compete for attention online that pursuing Facebook engagement at any cost may risk damaging voters perceptions of their brand.
There seems to be increasing cynicism of 'click bait’ posts which use cheap tactics to chase engagement. Dr Ben Marder, University of Edinburgh
Meanwhile Lauren Smith, a research fellow at Strathclyde University, said that the Facebook data published by The Ferret also raised important questions for public educators and individuals.
She argued that it was especially important for people to be able to identify trustworthy content, regardless of who it is shared by.
She said: “A key implication of this research relates to the need for public education on information dissemination of different forms, be it through traditional media or social media.
“It is important for people to understand how the content is created, shared and open to manipulation, and how they as individuals can develop the critical capacities they need to develop their own, informed opinions.
There is a growing need for people to develop their own “information and news literacy skills to be able to form opinions on current events and political issues based on a strong foundation of critical awareness,” she added.
What is a Facebook reaction?
Each response to a post on Facebook is regarded as a ‘reaction’ on the platform.
And each time someone reacts to a political post, Facebook rewards the post by making it more likely to appear in the news feeds of people they are connected to.
Furthermore, each time someone gives a reaction to a Facebook post in their feed, it increases the likelihood that they will see more posts from that political party in their feed in the future.
For this reason, a close look at these engagement statistics gives a far better insight into which parties are successfully spreading their messages on the social media behemoth – and which ones are not – instead of simply looking at which political party has most ‘page likes.’
The chart below shows the total number of reactions that each political party received over a period, just shorter than 12 months, from February 2016 to January 2017.
Each party has a different social media style, with some parties posting far more frequently than others.
But the chart above shows that overall, far right parties are winning the battle for attention on Facebook, with UKIP and Britain First gaining more reactions overall than all the other political parties combined.
Britain First posts particularly frequently, usually many times each day.
This means that each individual post they make gets a lower median number of reactions than some other political groups, even if in aggregate they still provoke a great deal of responses.
Turning to look at the median number of reactions that posts on each political party Facebook page receives, two out of the top three political parties are on the right of the political spectrum.
Another factor worth noting is that, according to social media analysis tool Buzzsumo, the total number of monthly engagements (a metric that also includes shares and comments) on the UKIP Facebook page has decreased considerably since the EU referendum.
This suggests that a significant proportion of the UKIP reactions recorded in this sample may have been achieved by the party investing in extensive paid promotion on Facebook as part of its campaign to persuade people to back Brexit.
Although we have no way to tell which reactions were generated from promoted posts and which ones simply spread organically through the network, no other UK party saw such a marked decline in engagement after the poll.
Which parties make people angry?
The chart below looks specifically at the typical number of angry reactions a post by each political party generated in the last year.
It shows quite clearly that Britain First and UKIP are more likely than any other party to generate the most angry reactions from people reading their posts.
It’s worth noting how Britain First manages to provoke these reactions.
The data shows that a video post on the Britain First page on June 2016 has garnered the most ‘angry’ reactions on the page to date.
The post provoked 14,932 angry reactions alone, and has been viewed 8.3m times.
Yet important context from the film is missing. The video was posted only with the status: “VIDEO: Islamists destroying British, Australian, Canadian war graves.”
It does not explain that it was first shot in 2012, four years earlier, according to Snopes. The video shows Salafist extremists who also targeted Mosques and muslim burial sites in Syria.
The UKIP post which generated the most angry reactions asked supporters to sign a petition against an EU information leaflet produced by the government. This post gained 2,308 angry reactions.
Which parties make people feel ‘love?’
By contrast, few people are likely to indicate they ‘love’ a typical Britain First post. Instead it is Labour that tops the table for this reaction.
The more centrist parties, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all tend to receive, on average, significantly more ‘love’ reactions than angry reactions.
The Greens and Britain First both receive more angry reactions, on average, than love reactions. Love and angry reactions garnered by UKIP posts are roughly the same.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party has far lower engagement rates across the whole emotional spectrum than other political parties.
The post which gained the most ‘love’ reactions on Labour’s Facebook page was also a video post.
The video was a live broadcast of the results of the leadership contest held last year. It has been viewed nearly half a million times.
But what about Scotland?
The data for the Scottish political parties shows that the SNP’s social media operation dwarves their competitors on Facebook. A typical post on the SNP Facebook page gets fives times more reaction that their nearest competitor, the Scottish Conservative party.
The post which gained the largest number of reactions on the SNP Facebook page was a video post of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech following the results of the EU referendum.
The video gained 2,304 “loves” and 279 “angry” reactions.
The Scottish Conservative post that gained the most reactions over the year was a simple image post, bearing the message “thank you.” It was posted after the Holyrood elections when the Tories overtook Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood.
The thank you post gained 81 ‘Loves’ and no ‘angry’ responses.
Dr Ben Marder from the University of Edinburgh Business School has previously conducted research into the way political parties use Facebook.
“High intensity emotions such as anger or awe increase engagement,” he explained, with posts generating these emotions having the most potential to go viral.
But he warned that parties should be wary of chasing engagement at all costs, and emphasised that they need to be creative to find ways of engaging potential voters beyond their existing ‘echo-chamber’ of supporters.
He added: “Facebook is highly important for electoral success, providing a channel to directly communicate with potential voters, however political parties need to find ways to overcome the echo-chambers, to reach potential voters outside of their core fan base”.
“It is a dangerous tactic to make maximising engagement the main objective, parties need to consider how their strategies for increasing engagement affect the image of their party in the minds of their potential voters”
And he cautioned that political groups should be wary of stoking up negative emotions in any attempt to compete with the far right for attention on Facebook.
To increase their engagement, he said: “Left-wing and central parties should try to evoke higher intensity emotions, but should be cautious with negative emotions such as anger as this may affect the image of the party.”
He also noted that, “there seems to be increasing cynicism of ‘click bait’ posts which use cheap tactics to chase engagement”.
A high quantity of posts may create a false sense of scale of public support for certain beliefs and values, which may then have an influence on how willing people are to talk about their opposing views Lauren Smith, University of Strathclyde
Lauren Smith from Strathclyde University also said the Facebook data raised questions about the impact of social media on the way people perceive social issues. “Most significant is the amount of information sharing and the difference between the different pages.
“Overwhelming people with information has an effect on their information processing; stifling their capacity to rationally dismantle what’s being communicated. This leads them to making judgements based on so-called ‘gut instinct’ and emotion rather than considered intellectual work.
“The quality of people’s decision-making then suffers.”
“Additionally, a high quantity of posts may create a false sense of scale of public support for certain beliefs and values, which may then have an influence on how willing people are to talk about their opposing views, or how much they think making the effort to communicate these views in a nuanced way is worthwhile.”
Get the data
The Ferret is pleased to publish the source data that informed this analysis as open data on GitHub.
The repository includes 16 CSV format files that includes details of every post made each UK or Scottish political party up to January 2017. Each one is free to download.
As it is so hard to search Facebook for historical data, having the information in this format makes it easy to search through the status updates of the political parties for particular keywords.
For example, it is easy to search the archive of SNP Facebook posts for each update that mentions “council tax.”
Having the information in CSV format also makes it easier to conduct bulk and statistical analysis across the posts.
There’s a lot more information to be gleaned from these files. If you use this data in anyway, please do tell us about it.