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Facebook set to be the key battle ground for the General Election

The forthcoming General Election on June 8th will very likely go down in UK history as the first one where Facebook was the undisputed major digital battleground.

Social media has become increasingly prominent in political campaigning, often led by US presidential races. In 2008 Barack Obama pioneered the use of social media to mobilise his supporter base, and he repeated the trick for his re-election in 2012.

Donald Trump's Twitter feed may be where the news is generated, but make no mistake, Facebook is where his votes were secured. This analysis from FiveThirtyEight shows how successful Donald Trump was on Facebook compared to both Hilary Clinton and his Republican rivals.

And the trends in the UK reinforce the position that Facebook is where successful political campaigns are won. In 2015, the Conservatives outspent Labour on Facebook by a factor of nearly 100!

Campaign rules governing referenda mean neither side of the EU referendum has disclosed what was spent on Facebook in courting leave and remain voters. However both official campaigns were highly visible on Facebook in the run up to the vote, with James McGrory, the chief campaign spokesperson for Britain Stronger in Europe, saying at the time that “Facebook is a huge part of our operation, with extraordinary reach.”

The reasons for Facebook’s success are clear. It starts and ends with user numbers and user engagement.

At 32 million users, Facebook has over twice the UK audience of Twitter. Those users are more engaged too: across the suite of Facebook apps, its users spend 50 minutes a day scrolling through news feeds and messages (Facebook no longer shares individual dwell time stats for the Facebook news feed). This compares to just a single minute on Twitter.

This means that from today (21st April), until the polls open on 8th June, the UK will spend a collective 1,280 million hours on Facebook apps. That compares to just 12.5 million hours on Twitter.

As an added bonus, Facebook’s user demographics also skew towards age groups that are more likely to vote (unlike Snapchat and Instagram). Facebook has 15.3 million users over the age of 35.

Facebook is also better suited to general election campaigning, providing parties with geo-location tools that other platforms simply don’t offer.

Don't expect any parties to ignore Facebook over the next seven weeks.

Volume of spending of course does not correlate perfectly with success on Facebook, or indeed in elections. You need to be smart in your spending too.

Much has been made of the impact Cambridge Analytica has had on elections in the UK and the US. The firm - alongside Jared Kushner - has been praised as the brains behind Donald Trump's election success. The President's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was on the board of the company.

Cambridge Analytica uses psychographics to build an understanding of the individuals behind social profiles. Using the OCEAN personality scale (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) - alongside mountains of data on every individual, the firm claims to be able to predict how citizens would vote and how they might respond to different topics and content. This analysis enables campaigners to target people with highly personalised messages delivered in the right way to encourage a specific desired outcome (voting, sharing etc.).

Many people have been left uneasy by this type of media targeting, feeling that their privacy is being invaded, and both Cambridge Analytica as a firm, and psychographic targeting as a tool have become somewhat politicised.

However, ahead of the upcoming election we can expect all parties to be courting our votes in more sophisticated ways using Facebook.

Much of the content will be issues driven and may not carry much - if any - mention of a specific candidate or party. Much of it will be distributed via shares and likes from our Facebook friends. And a lot of it will be video-based information sharing.

Some of what is pushed into our feed will also be fake news.

Whilst studies show that fake news does very little to change our voting intentions and behaviour, it does make it harder for us to hear from different sides of a debate. Having initially been dismissive of the impact of fake news, Facebook is starting to take it seriously. Earlier this month it announced that it had deleted tens of thousands of fake accounts from its platform, and began educating users on how to spot fake news.

Facebook is beginning to catch up with the level of sophistication of those creating fake accounts. Whilst it is unlikely to have come too close to solving the fake news dilemma in time for this election, this might be the last time fake news on Facebook provides a serious talking point in a UK election.

So get ready for the deluge to fall into your Facebook news feed. It's going to be hard work finding good cat memes and #epicfail videos for the next seven weeks.

Often – perhaps too often – we see political campaigns as a forerunner for how future corporate campaigns are to be run. Political campaigns can be publicly evaluated with a clear model for what strategies and tactics were successful, and this can lead businesses to follow suit. Whilst we should all be extremely cautious in modelling any activity on a political campaign, over the next seven weeks there could be some important lessons for brands to learn in how to take advantage of Facebook, the most powerful advertising tool in history.

We’ll be blogging more about the election throughout the coming weeks.