Are Twitter and Facebook to blame for our surprise at the BBC's coverage of UKIP?

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There’s a lot of angry people on Twitter this morning. Its the night after the European and local elections and whilst not all of the results are in yet, everyone is furious about UKIP doing so well. The party has gone from having virtually no seats, to (at time of writing) 90 – and this is sure to rise. Who’s to blame? The BBC for giving disproportionate coverage to Farage’s circus.

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But is this the case? Was coverage really that disproportionate? I’m not sure it was – and I wonder if social media played a role in changing our expectations.

Let’s start with how well UKIP actually are doing. According to UK Polling Report, in the run-up to the election, it was polling consistently in the mid-teens… and much higher than the Liberal Democrats.

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So you’d think they deserve some coverage, right? However unpalatable their views.

The BBC by virtue of its unique status has an obligation to report impartially – and this means giving roughly equal time for all of the major parties (whilst there a plenty of problems with BBC impartiality, this is the way things are). For many years this was pretty easy – in a political report all was needed was to have a bit of Labour, a bit of the Conservatives, and a bit of the LibDems – they all had seats in Parliament, and together their polling numbers made up almost 100% of votes.

The trouble is UKIP don’t have any seats, but do have big polling numbers… so should they be afforded the same levels of coverage? Given polling is more up-to-date than seat counts, it seems they should be (not to mention they have seats in the European Parliament).

One of the big criticisms of the BBC this morning is that it has essentially ‘created’ UKIP – by giving it coverage, it created a self-fulfilling cycle, where publicity would lead to more support, which would lead to more coverage. But given the BBC’s impartiality obligations, can you really blame it? What else can it do? They’re pretty much obliged to invite Nigel Farage on to Question Time regularly.

So where does social media come into this? I would argue that one of the reasons UKIP’s rise seems so shocking is because thanks to social media, we get a very insulated view of the word, from inside our own little media bubbles.

Gone are the days when there was only a handful of news outlets, so people would broadly get their news from the same source – instead thanks to the power of Twitter and Facebook, we’re able to ‘curate’ our own news. On both platforms we choose the people we follow – and inevitably our friends and the people we follow are broadly going to be very similar to ourselves.

If you live your life on social media like I do, then the milieu in which you experience the world is going to be rather distorted. Your Twitter feed probably isn’t reflective of the country at large – so all of those months reading tweets about how awful UKIP are and chortling together about the disastrous UKIP carnival are not the same conversations that most people around the country were having.

In fact, I wanted to check this – and see exactly how massive unrepresentative my Twitter feed was. So I tweeted a poll, asking my followers to anonymously tell me who they voted for yesterday. The results are pretty striking:

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The above is after 55 votes. And as you can see, I’m a bit of a lefty. If my followers were the deciders, we’d have the Green Party coming in first and a hugely successful Labour Party. On a 100% turnout too! More importantly, it turns out that no one who follows me voted UKIP – and only one voted Tory. Compare to the polls and Sunday’s actual results, and I’m fairly confident that I’m out of step with the country at large.

Obviously social media isn’t the only reason for this outcome – there are plenty of other factors. For example, I live in cosmopolitan London and have a white-collar writing job (at least, it would be white collar if I had to wear a shirt…) – as are most of the people I follow on Twitter and am friends with on Facebook.

So is it any surprise that the social media background noise to my life is slanted in a liberal direction? Is it any wonder that I might be surprised by UKIP’s coverage and success when my view is so gigantically distorted?

James O’Malley

14 comments

  • Thanks for starting this, it's a neat little exercise to learn about each other, and to remember how/why we got into this crazy business. So it doesn't look like anyone else is posting there answers here but I'll at least link to them.Toronto Pearson Airport TaxiToronto Airport TaxiPearson Airport Taxi

  • It wasn’t equal media coverage it was the media conducting a witch hunt on behalf of their coalition friends against a fledgling party picking up an alarming amount of support. A large amount of the electorate recognised this & resented the media trying to coral them into not voting for ukip…result even more ukip supporters…no one likes a bully!

  • It wasn't equal media coverage it was the media conducting a witch hunt on behalf of their coalition friends against a fledgling party picking up an alarming amount of support. A large amount of the electorate recognised this & resented the media trying to coral them into not voting for ukip…result even more ukip supporters…no one likes a bully!

  • I’d generally agree with this, but I have serious problems with the way UKIP were covered. To me it seemed they were saying one policy and the media let them without talking about any of their other right-wing business-friendly (and possibly libertarian) policies that I think a lot of working class people would have a problem with.

    I’d also argue that BBCQT are obliged to ask SOMEONE from UKIP on, but it didn’t have to be media-slick Nigel Farage every time did it? If they’d got a wider range of people in their ‘shadow cabinet’ (for want of a better term) it might have been interesting.

    • Media slick Farage was needed Claire to counter the biased left wing audience that seems to appear on every QT

  • Have to disagree with you there, James. Yes, the BBC are obliged to give coverage to UKIP in proportion to their level of support, and yes, it’s not easy deciding whether you measure level of support by % of popular vote or number of MPs.

    But the fact is the BBC have given UKIP coverage way out of proportion to their support, no matter how you measure it. The contrast with the Green party is pretty striking. If you only get your news from the BBC, you probably wouldn’t know that the Green party even exists.

    • >But the fact is the BBC have given UKIP coverage way out of proportion to their support, no matter how you measure it.

      Twitter is to blame for this, again. When the BBC is trying to gauge the mood of the nation, it (and it’s not the only outlet to do this) looks at Twitter as some kind of ‘voice of the people’. When it seems UKIP/Farage constantly trending and Twitter users constantly complaining about them, then they see UKIP as a party/issue that is important to the nation, and thus we get more coverage.

      Not only should we blame Twitter for the surprise of how well UKIP has done, we must also blame Twitter for the sheer amount of coverage, too.

  • I'd generally agree with this, but I have serious problems with the way UKIP were covered. To me it seemed they were saying one policy and the media let them without talking about any of their other right-wing business-friendly (and possibly libertarian) policies that I think a lot of working class people would have a problem with.I'd also argue that BBCQT are obliged to ask SOMEONE from UKIP on, but it didn't have to be media-slick Nigel Farage every time did it? If they'd got a wider range of people in their 'shadow cabinet' (for want of a better term) it might have been interesting.

    • Media slick Farage was needed Claire to counter the biased left wing audience that seems to appear on every QT

  • Have to disagree with you there, James. Yes, the BBC are obliged to give coverage to UKIP in proportion to their level of support, and yes, it's not easy deciding whether you measure level of support by % of popular vote or number of MPs.But the fact is the BBC have given UKIP coverage way out of proportion to their support, no matter how you measure it. The contrast with the Green party is pretty striking. If you only get your news from the BBC, you probably wouldn't know that the Green party even exists.

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