The potential for social media to give a misleading impression of political popularity has been revealed by research showing the dominance of Labour supporters on Facebook, Twitter and other networks.
Social media research specialist Global Web Index has tracked how active supporters of the main political parties are on the major channels, and found Tories are considerably more "shy" than Labour voters online.
Its latest wave of data, compiled last month, has been shared with The Huffington Post UK, and suggests social media is "poor barometer" of the political weather.
A post-mortem into the polling industry failing to predict the general election result, published this week, underlined how vociferous online support for Labour and left-wing policies fails to translate into electoral success.
Some think the social media “echo chamber” partly explains why the Conservatives won a majority at the general election despite anti-Tory viral campaigns such as #CameronMustGo.
Others fear recent history could be repeating itself since the online popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, propelled by “Corbyn-istas” on Twitter and Facebook, outstrips his poll rating.
The Global Web Index research finds Tories are consistently less likely than Labour supporters to have accounts on social networks (see graph below).
On Twitter, where fewer people have signed up than Facebook, but is credited with having more influence on opinion formers, 48.5% of Labour voters have an account compared to 37.3% of Conservatives.
Tories are also less likely to actively use their accounts when they do have one: 18.6% of them on Twitter compared to a 27.7% activity rate for Labour supporters (see graph below).
And Conservative voters will post political opinions on the web less than Labour supporters: just 6.9% of Conservative voters compared to 13.9% of Labour-ites (see graph below).
All the information points to a “shy Tory” phenomena on social media that echoes that found by pollsters during the 1992 general election, when the Conservative Party pulled off another apparently shocking election victory because supporters were reluctant to tell pollsters the truth.
The research by Global Web Index, which has worked with 15 of the world’s 20 biggest social media companies, also confirms how Scottish National Party supporters are more prolific than any other group supporters. Critics have dubbed the most aggressive of their clan “Cybernats”.
Social media’s left-leaning inclinations - Labour, SNP and Green supporters are the three most active - also emerged in a deeper analysis the firm carried out in the aftermath of the general election.
Jason Mander, Global Web Index’s head of trends, told The Huffington Post: “It’s not so much that people were saying one thing online and then doing another thing on voting day; rather, it’s that the conversations taking place online were extremely one-sided and skewed towards Labour.
“Social media acted as a pretty poor barometer for what was happening on the ground. Instead, it gave us a clear picture of which groups were most likely to take to the internet to share and discuss their views.”
Global's most recent analysis saw them poll 7,500 UK internet users aged between 16 and 64.
Its post-general election report re-interviewed 2,000 voters who had previously taken part in surveys. It bears out that Tory supporters are on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube far less than voters of the five other political parties.
And “shy Tories” were invariably the least likely to suggest on social media how they were going to vote - even after the election results were revealed.
Social media will only grow as a tool deployed by political parties to get their message across. Official records of spending during the election campaign, published this week, revealed how the Tories far outspent Labour on targeted advertising on Facebook.
And Labour’s election post-mortem, also published this week, acknowledged the Conservatives were “better able to use careful targeting of key voter groups”, and noted it could no longer “fail to recognise the growing role of digital and data in future campaigns”.
“Without question social media continues to offer huge reach,” says Mander. “And it’s highly sensible for parties to be devoting considerable spend to it. But they need to be cautious about equating online sentiment and reaction with the number of crosses they’ll get in the voting booth.”