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Guest Slot: Social media and shy rightwingers

June 26th, 2015

Dan Hannan Tweet

Tissue Price on the polling errors across Europe

The inquest into the polling disaster at the UK General Election continues. Matt Singh of NumberCruncherPolitics provided an excellent overview of the pollsters’ initial thoughts last week, ahead of the first meeting of the official BPC/MRS inquiry.

Some pollsters think faulty sampling was the principal cause of error, some blame turnout modelling, and one thinks a genuine late swing was the biggest single factor.

Dan Hodges channels Emile Zola in accusing the pollsters of herding, and Danny Finkelstein (£) thinks we’ll never know the true answer.

However Matt’s bet – and mine – is that Peter Kellner is right and that 2015 was a classic case of shy Tory syndrome. Peter chiefly attributes this to the Tories’ image, but I wonder whether his earlier explanation of “social satisficing” – not wanting to admit your views to a stranger for fear of being thought less of – might be nearer the mark, notwithstanding the fact that the majority of UK polls were online.

The reason for thinking this is that similar polling errors have occurred in other national elections this year. In Israel, Likud were predicted to gain 22 seats (of 120) and ended up with 30, and last week in Denmark the blue block were expected to win by 1 or 2% and actually won by 5% – with the populist DPP notably outperforming their eve-of-election polling by 3% (21% to 18%).

On more limited polling, the same pattern can be seen in Finland – with the Centre Party overestimated by about 3% at the expense of the populist True Finns and centre-right National Coalition Party; in Estonia, where the winning centre-right Reform Party were underestimated; in the Croatian presidential election, where the polls didn’t give the narrow winner Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović much of a chance (though interestingly the exit polls nailed it); and in Poland’s presidential election, where Andrzej Duda’s first round victory came as a total shock.

You could even make a case that Ireland’s marriage referendum fits the pattern, with the 62-38 victory for Yes contrasting with opinion polling expecting a 70-30 result.

The social media explanation

Is there a ready (and no doubt oversimplistic) explanation for why people all over Europe, in a variety of elections, might have been conditioned into suppressing their true intentions – even online? I think that perhaps social media – Twitter, and more importantly Facebook – has the answer.

Twitter has long been described as an echo chamber, and undoubtedly has a leftwing bias in terms of the sheer number of tweets. Dan Hannan’s tongue-in-cheek Venn diagram (at the head of this article) is to the point; the FT provided a more aesthetically pleasing proof of the same effect with some very nice network graphs.

However on Twitter you can choose who you follow and what you are exposed to. On Facebook you have to put up with your friends’ opinions. Now I am a fully paid-up PB Tory, with a social circle to match, but even I have some leftwing friends. And they didn’t shy away from signalling their virtue!

That’s anecdotal, but here is some data from the British Election Study posted by Philip Cowley of Nottingham University which confirms that left-wingers were much more likely to post content online during the election campaign:

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NB the wider reach of Facebook – it’s by far the more important social network for communicating with the electorate at large. Ofcom estimate that there are about 35m Facebook users in the UK and only 12m Twitter users.

My supposition is that it’s easier – as in, less risk of argument or confrontation – to post left-wing opinion online. Your intentions are assumed to be good and your motives pure, whereas right-wing opinion may often carry a whiff of self-interest in financial matters and might be supposed to be xenophobic or worse in other areas.

So, there’s my overarching theory to explain the multiple failures of polling across Europe this year: an online culture in which leftwing messages get disproportionately liked or retweeted into your timeline might have helped to bring about the emergence of shy Tories. What do you think?

Tissue Price