Spot the difference: how Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson self-represented on Twitter

There is no doubt that the results of the general elections came as a shock to many across the UK, not least to Jo Swinson. As leader of the Liberal Democrats, she not only lost her seat but consequently had to step down as the party’s leader. For someone who had said she will be the next Prime Minister when she was first elected, it was telling that she could not even convince her own constituency to vote for her. Compare that to Nicola Sturgeon, another female party leader whose party did remarkably well, gaining 13 new seats including Jo Swinson’s. What made these two women leaders so different?

From my critical perspective as a gender scholar, I was interested to know why Nicola Sturgeon sparked so much confidence as a politician while Jo Swinson often left me feeling unconvinced. If the results are anything to go by, it seems that I was not the only one who felt this way. Thus, I turned to social media, specifically Twitter, to determine the sort of online political self these two women projected to the public, given that social media offer more control over content than traditional media. The understanding was that their self-representation will project the preferred political persona, and therefore be a better marker of how each woman wanted to be seen by the public. Focusing on their Twitter activity a week before and a day after the election on December 12 (5th-13th December 2019), I looked at each leader’s level of visibility, the personality they projected and the level of public engagement with their tweets.

While these are preliminary reflections, the first thing to note is that Nicola Sturgeon was far more visible on Twitter than Jo Swinson. During the 9 days, she tweeted 215 times compared with Jo Swinson’s 80. These comprised 25 original tweets, 22 retweets with comments and 168 retweets without comments, while Jo Swinson’s were 39, 15 and 26 respectively. Thus, beyond visibility on traditional media and face-to-face campaign interactions, Nicola Sturgeon made better use of Twitter to remain visible to the public. As people often vote for candidates they are familiar with, this seemed like a good campaign strategy. However, it must also be noted that much as social media can be an alternative space for women politicians to counteract their marginalisation in traditional media, they can also serve as an arena for the (re)production of sexist and stereotypical abuse from the public. Jo Swinson, for example, have reported of relentless online sexist abuse as have other women MPs like Diane Abbott. At the start of the campaign, 18 women MPs also stood down citing abuse as one of the key reasons. Thus, social media can be a double-edged sword to women politicians.

Considering tweet content, Nicola Sturgeon adopted a more populist approach that included a large number of endorsements from other people, images with smiling crowds to signify her popularity and likeability, endorsements of other SNP candidates to portray herself as a supportive leader, a variety of ‘ordinary’ activities like ice skating and tossing vegetables to foreground her affinity with the masses, and a clear and simple campaign message: lock Boris Johnson out by voting for her party. Many of these strategies were missing in Jo Swinson’s feed as she adopted a more individualised political persona that focused on her campaign message (most of which were criticisms of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn), and rarely showed her with crowds, thereby missing an opportunity to counter her (perceived) unpopularity especially in traditional media. Thus, while Nicola Sturgeon adopted a mix of aspects of her femininity, masculinised politics and ordinariness to lay claim to an authentic political self, Jo Swinson’s constructed self focused too narrowly on conventional ideas about politicking, thereby leaving information gaps about who she really is and whether what she showed online was authentic.

Jo Swinson’s individualised approach to her self-representation, which did not differ much from her portrayal in traditional media, may have considerably contributed to her unpopularity, which was reflected in responses to her tweets. For example, retweets above 1000 were 5 (9.3%) while likes above 2000 were 13(24.1%), compared with Nicola Sturgeon’s 12 (25.5%) and 38 (76.6%) respectively. In fact, poll results show that the more people saw Jo Swinson, the more they disliked her. The extent of Jo Swinson’s unpopularity is even evident among her fellow women politicians as both Nicola Sturgeon and Diana Abbot were jubilant when they heard that she lost her seat.

Achieving an authentic political self that inspires confidence in voters is a difficult task for women politicians because politics is so masculinised. This initial analysis has shown that while social media gives women more content control, it is still very easy to get it wrong.