Here’s How the U.K. General Election is Playing out on YouTube
In the coming weeks, we’ll look at how the parties and politicians are using online video to get out their message. First up: YouTube
Read a British newspaper or log on to a news website and you’ll learn about how the 2019 U.K. general election, held on December 12th, is “the first social media election”. While the previous three elections have also been dubbed the first social media vote, this time it might actually be true.
But while most news coverage is oddly fixated on a campaign of micro-targeted advertising that tech-literate Westminster hacks are willing into being, rather than is actually happening, there’s a much more interesting battle being fought on unpaid social media.
For those just joining us, FFWD is Medium’s publication focused on online video. We’re deeply embedded in the world of YouTube, TikTok, Twitch and others — including Facebook and Instagram video — and able to identify the trends and movements as they occur.
And I’m its editor, Chris Stokel-Walker, author of YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars, and a freelance journalist for a number of publications, who is often asked on TV and radio to explain how YouTube and social media works.
As the biggest video sharing platform in the world, we’re starting our peek into how the parties and their leaders are preparing for December 12th with a look at what’s going on on YouTube.
A quick note about methodology: statistics and analytics, including audience insights, are taken from two separate YouTube industry sources — one of which is publicly accessible, and one of which is not — as well as the YouTube channels themselves.
In the last 30 days, the Conservatives have posted around half a dozen videos to YouTube, which have garnered 371,000 views. Over the same period, the party’s channel has added around 1,000 subscribers — not bad for a channel with 38,500 subscribers in total.
What’s most telling is how much of that was driven by just one video: Johnson’s apeing of the 73 Questions format made popular by Vogue.
That single video accounted for 201,000 of those 371,000 added views in the last month, outdoing most other videos by a factor of five or more. (Fun fact for the U.K. political editors looking to fill their rolling news channel slots: this single video accounted for one in every 100 views the Conservatives have ever had on YouTube in the 13 years the channel has been running.)
What’s interesting is that it hasn’t changed the demographics of the channel, which mostly appeals to 25-to-34-year-old men, according to data provided by a third-party company tracking YouTube.
In terms of Boris Johnson’s personal YouTube account… well, not much has changed in the 11 years it’s lain dormant. BackBoris was his attempt to harness YouTube for his London Mayoral campaign. It only ever hosted 10 videos, only managed to gain 100 subscribers, and in total its videos were seen 30,202 times ever: about as many as watched a video on the Tories’ official account last Monday.
So what of Jeremy Corbyn? Labour has been sneaky and set some settings on his personal account (including subscriber counts) to private, so we don’t know how many people have subscribed to him. But we do know about view counts and video uploads: in the last month, Corbyn’s channel has posted 17 videos, seen a combined 73,170 times.
Like Johnson, Corbyn benefitted from the popularity of a single video to bring him much of his views. His 60 Second Challenge — which was popularized by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern (except it was two minutes that became nearly three) — accounted for 32,000 views.
The official Labour Party YouTube channel has a few more data points and insights to unlock. Labour are posting far more videos than the Tories to YouTube — 19 since midway through their party conference. But the average number of views per video is relatively low: in total, those 19 videos have been watched 74,000 times. The most-viewed video was Corbyn’s conference speech, which was watched 20,000 times.
But the conference has inflated the Labour numbers. Take away the conference videos and you’re left with a dozen uploads since they packed away the set in Brighton, which attained just 26,000 views.
Subscriber numbers increased by a few hundred more than the Tories in the last month — by around 1,100 according to one analysis, and 1,400 according to another.
Jo Swinson’s 129-subscriber strong YouTube presence hasn’t been updated in four months, while the Liberal Democrats’ channel sits just shy of 10,000 subscribers. Coincidentally, the eight videos they’ve uploaded in the past month have just less than 10,000 views, too. In comparison to the Labour and Tory efforts, the Lib Dems’ YouTube presence seems a bit lackluster. Whereas the two main parties appear to carefully optimize their titles for maximum social reach, the Lib Dems prefer a “do what it says on the tin” approach.
It will not surprise you to learn that the people engaging most with the three main parties on YouTube are 25-to-34-year-old men.
But the big beast on YouTube is Nigel Farage. While the Brexit Party don’t have an official U.K. based account (their MEPs have a YouTube channel to which they post European parliamentary proceedings), their leader does most of the heavy lifting for them. While he’s been removed from new uploads to LBC’s YouTube channel, with its 151,000 subscribers, Farage has decently-sized audience of his own on YouTube.
He’s a newcomer to YouTube, only setting up his personal account in April this year. But in the last seven months he’s built a subscriber base of 48,000 — and his videos are seen by far more. In the last 30 days he’s grown his subscribers by around 20%, and his videos have been seen 812,000 times.
In part, that’s because he’s feeding YouTube’s algorithm — and with what is, regardless of your politics, good quality content, too. YouTube’s algorithm (the black box which decides what videos out of the billions on the platform to promote to viewers) likes frequent, regular uploads. And Farage has posted 30 videos in the last 30 days.
He (or more accurately, his social media manager) is even borrowing from key YouTube tropes. One video trying to explain to viewers why Brexit hadn’t happened yet was done in the style of a Draw My Life video, a common format on YouTube:
He also has two regular themed series of videos — Talk of the Week, a 10 or 12-minute monologue, which just happens to be the prime length YouTube’s algorithm prefers from videos, and On the Road, a video diary of his time on the campaign trail.
The smallest elements are also fine-tuned for YouTube: while some of the other political parties simply use YouTube’s default thumbnails to advertise their videos, Farage’s channel customizes their thumbnails — which results in more clicks and views. It’s little wonder, then, that Farage’s channel gets in a day what all but the outlyingly popular videos by the other parties will get in a lifetime.
It is worth noting that the YouTube audience, though theoretically enormous (the platform has two billion monthly active users) skews very young, and is still considered outside the mainstream by many — wrongly, as my book on the site tries to explain. As a result, political YouTube isn’t really a thing yet.
However, what will be looming over both candidates’ heads, regardless of the outcome of the election, is the awareness that nothing in politics is permanent — and each side’s social media presences is a stark reminder of that.
Jeremy Corbyn’s official YouTube channel isn’t in fact registered in his name, but instead that of Jack Reardon Bond, Corbyn’s social media guru. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ official YouTube channel is even odder: its username is actually webcameronuk, a relic from David Cameron’s attempts to connect with digital voters a decade back.