Local newspaper editors once controlled the information that circled around a town or small city during an election. But in Canterbury in 2019, that power has fallen into the lap of the 32-year-old administrator of a Facebook group.
Edd Withers set up the Canterbury Residents Group on Facebook five years ago in an attempt to bridge the divide between the city’s large student population and its older residents. In a sign of the changing media environment that could shape this election, what started as a community project to bring generations together has turned into a lively and often chaotic rolling political conversation about all manner of issues affecting the city.
In 2017, students and remain-leaning residents of Canterbury helped Labour candidate Rosie Duffield do what many had thought impossible: turn a constituency that has voted Conservative for the past 160 years red. To hold on to her seat, which was won by a majority of 187 votes on an exceptional 72.7% turnout, Duffield faces a particular challenge, that of getting her message across to two demographics who consume their news on vastly different platforms.
Of the nearly 100 Canterbury residents who contacted the Guardian about the tight race in their constituency, Withers’ Facebook group was mentioned over a dozen times. While one resident described it as “a good starting point to find the ‘real’ residents and the issues they are passionate about”, another said they left the group “because of the extreme views and bullying behaviour”.
With more than 35,000 members and an average of 600 posts a day, the group caught Facebook’s attention, and the company flew Withers out to their headquarters in California a few months ago to discuss how they could better support him.
Facebook confirmed to the Guardian that it had invited Smithers to California as part of a series of events for people running such groups to share tips on how to moderate communities and learn what works. Its interest is not surprising. The group is a notable exception to a digital divide in how young and older voters consume news and share information. While middle-aged and older voters generally receive their news from Facebook, the TV and online news sites, young voters have abandoned the platform for Twitter, adding that they don’t have TV licences and are put off by political ads.
Withers said he was not interested in wielding any power and took a laissez-faire approach to content moderation. Anything except hate speech and death threats goes in the group. “My firm principle is we’ve got to let these people have these conversations,” he said. “It might seem tense sometimes and just a platform for people to argue with each other, but that’s the point. It’s the beginning of a process that hopefully leads to reconciliation.”
It’s an obvious place for the candidates to campaign, and all of them have agreed to do Facebook Live interviews on the group. Across the country such local Facebook groups are increasingly potent political forces. In Merthyr Tydfil one group was credited with helping to overthrow the council.
But the reputation for intense debates has put many people off. “It was about 15,000 when I was last active on it and it was things like missing kittens, which is so sweet,” Labour’s Duffield said of the group, but she believes it has become toxic and suggests there are many in the group who are not Canterbury residents.
The information in the group tends to reflect the scattergun chaos of social media. The top posts on one recent morning were an anti-Labour meme suggesting John McDonnell’s spending plans would cost too much, a lengthy discussion sparked by claims people had been seen smoking while queueing at a foodbank, which led to suggestions they could afford the food if they could afford cigarettes, and an image of Jeremy Corbyn superimposed on to an underwear model, declaring Labour was the sort of man who “ensures you come first”.
Though the group has become an influential force, there are many students who have yet to come across it or have no interest in joining. Alex Clifford, who recently graduated from Canterbury Christ Church University, likened the group to a cesspool, adding: “It’s how horrible Tumblr was in 2010.”
When 18-year-old Emily Brooks-Martin, a first-year student at the University of Kent, woke up on Tuesday morning, the first election-related news she came across was an impassioned video on Twitter calling on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to form a progressive alliance.
The same video found itself onto Clifford’s Twitter feed in the afternoon and was watched by nearly half a million people. By the evening, less than 24 hours after the video was uploaded, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tim Walker, announced he was stepping down. (He was later threatened with disciplinary action for doing so.)
Twitter has largely been characterised as a place where journalists and politicos hang out, but it has also become the focus of a younger, politically engaged general audience who have left Facebook. Throughout the day on Twitter, Brooks-Martin and Clifford also saw Corbyn’s pledge on childcare and news of the cyberattack on Labour. It’s where Brooks-Martin found a tactical voting website that told her to back Duffield for the best chance to remove the Tories from power and where many students watched Duffield’s moving speech in parliament about her personal experience with domestic violence.
Labour has been much more effective in reaching voters like Brooks-Martin on social media, but she warned that Corbyn should not assume the youth vote was a given. “Voting is not always about the person you’re voting for, it’s about who you are trying to avoid getting into power.” She added there were plenty of people her age disappointed by Corbyn and who would have loved to vote for the Green party, but believed the race in Canterbury to be between Labour and the Conservatives.
Michael Coulson-Tabb, a 49-year-old part-time owner of a gourmet burger restaurant who lives in the rapidly gentrifying seaside town of Whitstable, got much of his election-related news from Facebook and online news sites. As such, he was far more likely to come across Tory attack videos on Corbyn than the students.
While snipes about Brexit dominate the local resident group and Twitter, Coulson-Tabb said it was the personal tragedies and difficulties within their community that swayed who they would vote for. Many spoke of their frustration that those personal stories were lost in the fast-paced, ever-changing algorithm of Facebook and Twitter.
Coulson-Tabb, who lived in London and worked in the financial sector before moving to the area in 2001, said he had voted for the Conservatives for most of his life. It was not until 2012, when he met his wife, Alys, whose two religions were Arsenal and socialism, that he began to move further to the left. In March, Coulson-Tabb found out that despite chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Alys’s cancer had spread. On 24 May, she was transferred to a hospice. They got married a week before she died. In their wedding photo, Alys is smiling at their now 18-month-old boy, Ted.
While he described the care provided by NHS staff as “phenomenal”, he said it was impossible not to see how austerity had bulldozed the health service. He was backing Duffield because he feared the NHS would be allowed to wither away and further privatised under a Conservative government.
Clifford, who was 12 when the coalition government came in to power, said austerity had wrecked the lives of people across the country and argued that younger and older voters had far more in common.
She described her generation as “the children of austerity”. She said as cuts took hold in Gravesend, Kent, where she grew up, the outside world had became a smaller place. She watched her parents’ benefits being cut, youth centres being closed down, and the local shopping centre become a shadow of its former self. She is now struggling to make ends meet on universal credit; the £400 a month she gets goes into paying her rent, which is £360 a month.
Still, Clifford enjoys the memes that have become a staple of British elections. And in the Canterbury residents groups, older residents are getting in on the fun too, though the results been mixed. When one man posted a Back to the Future meme that called on Corbyn’s father to wear a condom this week, the likes were swift, but so was the almost uniform response from students: “OK Boomer.”