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Polls Got Robert Abela’s Unexpected Victory All Wrong, So Can Social Media Better Predict Election Results?

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It’s been around two weeks since Robert Abela’s unexpected victory in the Labour Party leadership election. Questions about how he did it and what his tenure will look like remain, but one thing is clear: the polls got it wrong.

While polls put Abela narrowly ahead the day before the election, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne seemed destined for the role, with survey after survey showing him the lead.

Some even had Fearne winning 58% of the vote.

Undecided voters, statistician Vincent Marmara explained, played a massive role in the discrepancies. However, with close to 73% of the population using Facebook daily, can social media accurately predict election results?

One study seems to suggest so.

Steve Agius, a Data Analytics lecturer at the University of Malta, looked at social media posts of each contender in the week leading up to the vote and managed to predict its result.

Agius first extracted quantitative data from both Abela and Fearne’s Facebook page. This included the number of posts, number of comments, number of shares and number and type of reactions.

He then took a sample from comments to determine whether they were positive, neutral, or negative.

In the space of a week, Agius took a look at 150 posts, 126,357 interactions, 10,003 comments, and 12,494 shares. And while he only took at English comments (with Maltese comments currently being analysed), Agius was only 0.7% off the final result.

Agius’ results had Abela’s social media influence at 58.6%. He ended up finishing the election with 57.9% of the vote.

Agius is quick to point out that the Labour Party Leadership race was not a general election, with only 17,500 party members voted. However, he maintains that social media influence played a crucial role in the result, reflecting the broader sentiment of the eligible voters.

While social media analysis may never fully replace traditional surveys, the study does give some indication on the influence social media can have on voters. It’s no surprise that politicians from both sides of the divide have flocked onto Facebook to reach their audiences.

However, the Cambridge Analytica revelations prove just how easy it can be abused and manipulated.

In Malta, the issue is clear. Several Ministers still use their personal pages to promote government initiatives, funnelling taxpayers’ money into non-government related pages that eventually count for nought should the minister step down.

The Maltese government has been criticised in the past for spending millions on social media promotion, with the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life even criticising Ministers for using official channels of communications for partisan affairs.

With the practice still containing, it remains to be seen whether newly-appointed Prime Minister Robert Abela was tackling the issue head-on.

Do you pay attention to the polls ahead of elections?

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