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Does Campaigning on Social Media Make a Difference?

I’ve got a new draft paper out with a host of colleagues here at the OII entitled Does Campaigning on Social Media Make a Difference? Evidence from candidate use of Twitter during the 2015 and 2017 UK Elections. There’s an enormous volume of research on the activities of politicians on social media, especially around election time, but not a lot of it has actually addressed whether this activity ‘makes a difference’, i.e. helps to win votes. Part of the reason for this is that measuring ‘campaign effects’ is quite difficult (unless you can convince campaigns themselves to participate in field experiments) and most of the data is purely cross-sectional which means a host of causality problems in this type of context.

Our study improves the situation by taking advantage of the fact that the UK has recently had two general elections in quick succession, and a considerable proportion of politicians (around 800 in fact) fought in both of them. This allowed us to create a panel dataset of politician social media use (in particular their Twitter activity) and electoral outcomes, which allows for much stronger causal claims (essentially we look at whether a change in the level of social media use by candidates was correlated with a change in vote share outcomes, controlling for factors such as the party they belong to).

The results were pretty interesting – we found a large amount of Twitter activity, spread throughout the country (see graphics), which support the idea that social media use is now a normal part of political campaigns. However the level of effort did vary quite a lot and this allowed us to explore our key interest, where we did indeed find that increasing Twitter activity correlates with increased levels of votes, even in this pretty strong panel data design. So – some good supporting evidence that politicians aren’t wasting their time on social media!

By | 2018-01-31T13:39:14+00:00 January 10th, 2018|Politics and Democracy, Social Media|0 Comments

Predicting elections with Wikipedia data: new article in EPJ Data Science

Taha Yasseri and I have a new article out in EPJ Data Science which looks at the subject of electoral prediction using page view data from Wikipedia. Forecasting electoral results with some form of novel internet data is really a growth area in the literature at the moment, with a huge amount of research teams trying out different approaches. However I think our paper nevertheless makes a novel contribution, in a couple of respects. First, our model is theory driven rather than taking a machine learning approach, by which I mean that we try and theorise the mechanism generating Wikipedia page view data and how that relates to electoral outcomes, rather than simply looking at a range of indicators to see if any of them offers any predictive power. Second, we test a reasonably large set of electoral results: a group of around 60 parties in the European Parliament elections in 2014, whereas many other studies look at prediction only in the case of one election.

We found a number of things: we are able to show that the majority of online information seeking happens in the couple of days before the election (left hand panel in the figure); we are also able to show that page views do seem to offer indicators of a number of things happening in the election, such as turnout levels (right hand panel in the figure) and overall electoral results. Wikipedia was particularly good at predicting the emergence of small parties which were shooting to prominence (something which has become a feature of European politics in the last decade), even if it did tend to overstate their final result.

In future work, we intend to spread the work out to more countries and more types of information seeking.

By | 2016-08-26T16:48:27+00:00 August 26th, 2016|Politics and Democracy, Research, Social Web|0 Comments

New Paper in European Union Politics

I have just published a paper in European Union Politics, together with Diego Garzia, Joseph Lacey and Alex Trechsel of the EUI. The paper was the fruition of a long term research project examining potential ways of changing the European Parliament’s electoral system, focussed in particular on allowing people to vote for parties in any member state. It seems particularly relevant today when protest parties such as Syriza and Podemos attract support (and criticism) from well outside of their own borders.

The paper explores what would happen under conditions of such transnationalisation, examining both what types of people would be likely to vote “transnationally” and the extent to which overall levels of representation would improve. Great to have it in print.

GE2015 on social media

Last week we had a sort of social media hackathon in honour of the UK’s election, looking at the reaction generated on social media. We took what I believe was a fairly novel approach to the analysis, by looking at social media reaction to individual candidates in constituencies (rather than just general hashtags or party leaders). The map below shows what the election results would have been if @mentions of these local candidates had been votes


We are still digesting the data so I’m not yet sure what the main findings are really, though we did get some interesting stuff on the diverging social media “reach” of different candidates, and the way Twitter impact and vote has different relationships depending on the party.


Check out our full range of work here. More to follow…

By | 2015-05-12T10:26:37+00:00 May 12th, 2015|Politics and Democracy, Social Media|0 Comments


A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at TICTEC, mySociety‘s inaugural research conference on the impact of civic technology. It was an inspiring event with so many presentations from different organisations trying to make a difference in countries all over the world.


There were a few academics there and hopefully we added some value too. I gave a presentation on a current project we are running with ULB exploring the dynamics of the website

Threshold Scatter

It was interesting however to see how differently academia and civic tech conceptualise research, with us academics coming in for some stick for taking years to produce research which makes it difficult to integrate into the development of new tools. But there were also lots of good examples of researchers working with civic tech organisations to try out new ways of reaching people or do research on impact – this sort of stuff is the future of political science in my opinion.

Digital Politics in Western Democracies

I recently had the chance to review Cristian Vaccari’s excellent new book Digital Politics in Western Democracies. Vaccari has assembled a great cross country comparative dataset on various indicators relating to politics and the internet, and provides a refreshing contrast to work which has been largely US centric so far. Have a look at the review here.

By | 2014-10-29T18:09:54+00:00 October 29th, 2014|Politics and Democracy, Research|0 Comments

Ideology and Social Structure on Twitter

Last week I was at the VOXPOL conference @ King’s College London. Vast majority of researchers were talking about terrorists and extremists, so I was a bit out of my field; though interestingly they were also all talking about big data and computational social science, which seems to be a staple in every social science conference these days. Ongoing debate about whether we need more teams of social scientists + computer scientists, or whether social scientists need to up their computing skills. I think both approaches are fine in the short term but in the long run social scientists need to skill up, as computer scientists won’t always be interested in our questions (we will want to use automatic content analysis in social science long after it becomes a boring topic in computer science, in the same way as we are still using the t test).


I gave a presentation on the relationship between ideology and social structure on twitter, arguing that political groups at the ideological extremes are more likely to exhibit closed and centralising communication patterns than those in the middle, which is an early result from a join project between myself, Diego Garzia and Alex Trechsel. The main point of the presentation was to discuss different ways of measuring closure and centralisation, which I’m still not sure about. Luckily most of our measures point in a similar direction, so I’m pretty sure there’s an interesting result in there somewhere.

Opening up local council meetings

Over the last week or so I gave a short comment on BBC South Today (as well as various radio stations) about a recent government move to allow anyone to record local council meetings and then post the results on the internet. A good idea I thought, though some councillors were apparently worried about being taken out of context (though in fairness I think the majority of councillors were also pretty supportive).

BBC South 2

A few of the journalists asked some interesting questions about how the move might affect the style of local politics, and how it all compared with the televisation of parliament which started in the late 1980s (and which many MPs fought bitterly). Unlike parliament where televisation is pretty regulated, anyone with a phone will be able to record in council meetings, which means that councillors will have to be a lot more on their guard I suppose; though they are also likely to be the ones who do most of the filming (either of themselves or of any opponents they can catch out). There may also be a move towards more soundbites: if you are looking for coverage, the key thing is not being recorded so much as saying something which the national press want to repeat. In the 1990s, for example, Teresa Gorman suggested “cutting the goolies off” sexual offenders, rather than calling for castration, because she knew it would put her on television (see this article).

Regardless of any style changes I think if it can provide a boost to the visibility of local democracy then the move will be worth it.

By | 2014-08-11T14:00:27+00:00 August 11th, 2014|Politics and Democracy, Social Media|0 Comments