Five election lessons for the media

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Media captionThe BBC's media editor Amol Rajan looks at the role played by social media - in shaping the outcome of the 2017 election.

We await better data, of course, but a few days after Theresa May's humiliation at the ballot box it is not too early to say this election was a watershed... for the media.

As many Tories have pointed out, their party increased its share of the vote for the fifth election in a row, something no party has ever done before. What took everyone by surprise was the astonishing surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.

This is driven to some extent by the UKIP vote falling back into their hands; but it seems likely to have been driven primarily by Britain's young voters.

And the place where they spent the election campaign wasn't just the rallies at which Corbyn drew thousands. It was online. In new digital media.

You cannot understand politics in our time unless you really understand media.

There are plenty of lessons about the media that I take from this election. Here are just five.

1) The balance of power is shifting

As I reported for the BBC 10 o'clock News, there have been two main narratives about this election, running in parallel. In traditional media, such as newspapers, Theresa May was lauded as a strong leader, while Jeremy Corbyn was lambasted as a socialist throwback.

In many new digital and social media platforms, an alternative view was expressed: One in which the Prime Minister is a weak and wooden performer, while Corbyn is an excellent tribune of the poor.

Newspapers lean right, on the whole, and tend to have an older audience. New digital media more often (though not always) leans left and often has a younger audience.

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Media captionJeremy Corbyn galvanised the youth vote on WhatsApp

Obviously these are huge generalisations; and clearly many traditional publishers also operate in the digital sphere; but the fact is, power is shifting irreversibly from old to new media.

I know I keep banging on about it, but it has always amazed me how slow Westminster has been to work this out. At 68, Corbyn understood it better than most of his predecessors.

2) Fleet Street won't always get its way

Of course Fleet Street isn't a homogenous thing. It includes papers that backed Corbyn or tactical voting to stop the Tories, such as The Guardian and The Daily Mirror.

For the most part, however, Britain's newspapers are conservative, and the most powerful titles, such as the Mail, Sun, Times, Telegraph and Express have been unanimous in their basic viewpoint.

Last week, those newspapers got slapped in the face.

No modern Prime Minister has had more sycophantic coverage than Theresa May. Even when she u-turned on her social care policy, and pretended she hadn't ("nothing has changed"), her move was welcomed as a pragmatic gesture.

If the manifesto commitments had been the other way round, and Corbyn had announced that reform to social care and the triple lock on pensions, while dropping the winter fuel allowance, some of these titles might well have given him hell for a three-pronged assault on their readers.

David Cameron could only have dreamed of the support that Mrs May has had in recent weeks. And just as she had the most sycophantic coverage of any modern PM, so Corbyn was under attack like nobody before him. Not Ed Miliband, not even Neil Kinnock, got the relentless vitriol saved for Corbyn.

For most of the past four decades, the Prime Minister who Rupert Murdoch wanted to see in No 10 has won. That is true this time, too. But losing a majority and becoming dependent on the DUP wasn't in the plan.

Fleet Street played a crucial role in Britain leaving the European Union. Measures that Britain's most powerful proprietors and editors wanted, such as the dropping of Leveson Two and Section 40, were granted in the Tory manifesto.

But for all their brutal partisanship in this election, the Prime Minister was humiliated.

3) The digital alt-left cannot be ignored

Sites such as The Canary, The Skwawkbox, and Another Angry Voice are making a huge impact and earning a massive following. We have tended to focus on the alt-right or anti-establishment right online, looking at websites like Breitbart, Westmonster and - in America - InfoWars.

As Jim Waterson of Buzzfeed UK argued in this excellent report, sites on the alt-left now boast hundreds of thousands of addicted and often politically active readers. They break news stories, thrive on social media shares, and run emotionally charged, highly partisan material that is handy in a tight race when you need to get the vote out.

That some of them - not necessarily the three I mention above - are adept at sharing fake news is no impediment to their influence.

4) Money isn't everything on Facebook

There is nothing new, of course, about the deployment of Facebook to spread a message, encourage donations, and bypass journalists. In 2008, Barack Obama harnessed Facebook superbly to raise vast sums of money and beat John McCain.

I spoke to Sam Jeffers, co-founder of the Who Targets Me? Project. He repeated something he said to The Times over the weekend: That according to his sample (11,000 volunteers), the Tories' Facebook campaigning was focused on fewer seats.

Image caption Sam Jeffers co-founded the Who Targets Me? Project

In the last 48 hours of the campaign, his volunteers saw Labour adverts in 464 constituencies, and Tory adverts in only 205.

This is just one project, of course, but given the Tories had a bigger war chest, it is astonishing.

"What we've also seen is far more sharing of Labour's ads, so that even in the seats the Tories were really targeting in the north, the ads they were paying for were being drowned out in people's news feeds by a sea of red ads and articles that were shared 'organically' by friends and family. Those messages are going to have a lot more weight in people's minds."

So you can spend loads on Facebook, as the Tories did (we don't yet know how much); but Labour may have had a bigger impact (possibly by spending less) because their adverts resonated emotionally.

That really matters.

In short, he told me, Labour's organically-shared, pro-Corbyn message drowned out the Tories' paid-for ads.

5) Polls still dominate the narrative

After May 2015, in which the vast majority of journalists (myself included) found egg on our faces after relying too heavily on the polls, there was a consensus that polls should be treated with immense caution. Remember they are snapshots not forecasts, and so on.

Then with Brexit, that same reliance came to the fore. And so too with President Trump's election in the US.

It seems that using polls to generate news headlines is a habit journalists just can't kick. They provide the illusion of a definitive, measurable impression of how the different parties are doing, and they often inject election campaigns with a sense of narrative and drama that they would otherwise lack.

Best of all, from the point of view of selling newspapers, they can come as a surprise. "Shock poll finds..." is a hardy perennial.

Indeed, The Times reported that YouGov's shock analysis pointed to Tory losses - and they were vindicated. But, by and large, the polls have again been woefully wrong. In 2015, they under-stated Tory support. This time, they under-stated Labour support.

And yet they were still often treated as gospel. A free media will always be free to make mistakes, but the excessive reliance of journalists on polls to create news stories comes at a terrible cost.

It reduces space and resources for actually going out and talking to voters about their lives, and - adjoined to the viral energy of social media - it promotes precisely the kind of herd mentality and hollow consensus that any journalist worth his or her salt should instinctively despise.