Can Big Data Predict the Election Result?

With the polling stations opening very soon, ICON has published its final report on the social and web channels of both Joseph Muscat (Prime Minister of Malta) and Simon Busuttil (Leader of the Opposition).
Ploughing through vast amounts of data has provided a plethora of insights, including:

  • Sentiment across all social media platforms.
  • Facebook Pages and the most successful images used.
  • The top performing videos and their levels of interaction.
  • Twitter pages and insights into the top tweets and most-followed people.
  • The campaign websites and their various features.

This data provides a qualitative and quantitative insight into the two main political campaigns that is equally as relevant in politics as it is in business.


ICON, in partnership with Minely has built a Machine Learning Model which clustered over 25,000 articles and over 2 million social reactions which occurred during the campaign. The clustering is used to determine whether a post is political or otherwise, and then to classify it as pro-PL or PN. This model utilises the political parties’ social pages as initial sentiment signalling for building the predictive model. The resulting model is used to automatically classify articles from all portals’ including independent media. View the dashboard here.

Sentiment Moving Average

‘Sentiment Analysis’ is the process of determining the emotional tone and user-interest behind post-content used to gain an understanding of the attitudes, opinions and emotions expressed within such online mention. This chart measures the sentiment moving average over the past 3 months. This is calculated by dividing the number of likes by the number of posts made on Facebook. It can be seen that there have been fluctuations in the sentiment from the start of March with PL staying ahead of PN until mid-April. Since then, PN has remained ahead of PL with regards to social sentiment, having almost a 20 point sentiment gap by the end of the campaign.

Unique User % Per Week

This chart shows the activity of unique followers per week from mid-February until the end of the campaign. The chart visualises sentiment as a percentage  (if one party won 60% of the sentiment, the other would appear as 40%) and normalises the user activity so each user’s averaged sentiment per day is expressed as one unit. The chart shows a string of PL activity through the campaign with an inversion in the last week of the campaign.


ICON carried out a qualitative analysis of both Joseph Muscat’s and Simon Busuttil’s Facebook pages to understand what kind of posts, uploads and messages, the two candidates have promoted during the month of May. Read our first analysis of Facebook here.

A quick glance at both candidate’s pages, reveals a very different method and style of communication between the two.

Joseph Muscat

In general, the majority of Joseph Muscat’s Facebook page consists of the proposals which he is promising to the people. These are communicated via a variety of videos and posts. The majority of videos feature families, schools and work environments. The Facebook posts, on the other hand, all follow the same theme and artwork of the campaign, that of block colours, round shapes, clear fonts and an overall, minimalistic, yet, bright style. These proposals are communicated in a maximum of two sentences, making them very straight to the point and easy to read whilst scrolling through Facebook.

The fact that these posts follow a cohesive theme, makes them easily recognisable and creates familiarity. The posts also include numbers, statistics, as well as mention of particular localities and demographics within the Maltese community (eg: elderly, athletes etc.). This makes the posts appealing to a specific market and catches these particular people’s attention more easily. The posts also include the ‘l-Aqwa Zmien’ logo, which is the campaign’s main message, as well a reference to the party’s website.

Unlike, Simon Busuttil’s Facebook page, Joseph Muscat’s proposal post uploads vary between English and Maltese. This supports the bilingual nature of the public and also appeals to foreigners.

Joseph Muscat has chosen to use his personal Facebook page as a platform to promote his party’s proposals, rather than as a personal channel. The other posts which he uploads to his page are Facebook live videos and headshots with his quotes.

This further supports the Labour Party’s method of using the Prime Minister as the face of the party. In fact, Joseph Muscat’s page makes little reference to his team members, colleagues or family. The Labour party’s website further supports this argument, as it takes on the same name as the Prime Minister (

There is little reference to the Nationalist party on Joseph Muscat’s page, however, in the promotional videos presented by the party, there is frequent mention of not wishing to return to the past, when the Nationalist party was in government.

Although Joseph Muscat frequently uploads posts to Facebook, the Prime Minister uses very few words. The page is very image or video based.  Joseph Muscat also regularly updates his cover photo. This is mainly to attract Facebook users who visit his Facebook page specifically.

Simon Busuttil

Simon Busuttil uses his Facebook page to promote the Forza Nazzjonali’s electoral campaign message, ‘Jien Naghzel Malta’ (I Choose Malta). In fact, Simon Busuttil’s Facebook posts and messages focus very much on Malta as a whole, rather than the party itself.

At the same time, the Leader of Opposition uses his Facebook page as a personal channel which gives insight into his own personal life and ‘behind the scenes’ moments of team building, conferences, preparing for mass meetings and so on. The Leader of Opposition uploads a mixture of personal photos of himself, his partner and him greeting  crowds and visiting different people in the community. This introduces a human element to the campaign which is very different from Joseph Muscat’s Facebook page which solely focuses on what the government is currently proposing.

Throughout his Facebook page, Simon Busuttil places emphasis on the principles which Forza Nazzjonali is choosing to follow during this campaign. The words used frequently throughout Simon Busuttil’s Facebook posts include ‘transparency’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘seriousness’. The element of honesty is also promoted via the use of imagery. Some of Simon Busuttil’s posts feature the party’s proposals together with his signature. This conveys the idea of an official promise as well as loyalty to the country. Other proposals are portrayed in the form of a printed booklet, indicating a solid plan behind such proposals.

Following this, Forza Nazzjonali also published a series of videos zooming in on the candidate’s eyes and slowly pulling out to show their faces. Such close-ups portray the idea of trust, directness, truth and credibility.

Simon Busuttil’s choice of wording also conveys an element of hope. These are accompanied by colourful pictures with confetti, cheerful people and the idea of a celebration.

Fan Base

Simon Busuttil’s Facebook page currently has approximately 41,410 followers and saw an increase of 6,620 followers during the month of May 2017.

Joseph Muscat, on the other hand, has 80,400 followers but saw 6,100 follower increases during this same period.

Whilst Joseph Muscat’s Facebook page has double the number of followers, Simon Busuttil’s Facebook page saw a larger increase in followers throughout the month of May.

The Number of Posts Vs. Interaction

There is no direct correlation between the number of posts and interaction on either Joseph Muscat’s nor Simon Busuttil’s page. However, a similar pattern between the two variables can be seen on Simon Busuttil’s page.

The highest amount of engagement received in one day was approximately 26,000 interactions on Joseph Muscat’s and approximately 20,000 interactions on Simon Busuttil’s. Although more engagement was recorded on Joseph Muscat’s page, the result of Simon Busutill’s page is significantly high, considering the smaller fan base. This shows that the content on these days was sponsored significantly, reached many people and was shared numerous times.

Best Performing Content

The post which generated the highest amount of interactions on Joseph Muscat’s page was on the second day of the election campaign. Simon Busuttil’s most popular post (in terms of engagement) was towards the end of the campaign.

Although overall interaction on Joseph Muscat’s page is higher and more consistent than Simon Busuttil’s, it is interesting to note that the surge in interactions increased significantly for Simon Busuttil, in the last week of the electoral campaign. In fact, Simon Busuttil’s posts reached nearly the same amount of interactions as Joseph Muscat’s on the 30th May.

Impact of Live-streaming & Video

This election campaign is the first time Facebook Live has been used by either party to portray a message. Both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil have utilised video to stream their mass meetings as well as short live video messages to their followers on Facebook. Likewise the tool has been used to relay formal press-conference events.

A look at the top 3 videos posted by both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil sheds some light on the phenomenon of engagement. The top videos are ranked based on interactions (total likes, comments and shares) and not on video views. These appear below:

Joseph Muscat

Focusing first on Joseph Muscat’s top 3 videos posted between 1st May – 31st May, it’s interesting to note that two of them are live videos.

Specifically, they are both live streams of mass meetings, one at Ħal Tarxien (the top video posted) and the other at Il-Fosos tal-Furjana (the third top video posted).

The second most popular video posted titled “L-aktar karta importanti” or “The most important card” was posted on the 31st May and seems to be a reaction to a PN video about the subject of corruption. Given the short time-frame, since the video was posted, it has managed to receive very high levels of engagement.

The video of the mass meeting in Ħal Tarxien received:

  • over 2,900 comments
  • over 4,100 reactions – including over 2,500 likes and over 1,500 loves.

Joseph Muscat’s followers on Facebook seem to react more to these types of live videos. They show an intent to get more involved in sharing and commenting on what is happening around Malta in real-time rather than in campaign videos or other, shorter live videos posted. Both mass meeting streams are over an hour long while the campaign video is a short 1 minute 11-second clip. This indicates that, as a whole, Joseph Muscat’s followers are more likely to engage with and watch a video that is running for a long period of time on Facebook, allowing it to gather viewers and engagement metrics rather than engaging users with a short, summarised clip.

Simon Busuttil

Simon Busuttil’s top 3 videos posted are all live videos, of varying lengths and topics. The top video posted is of Simon Busutill himself communicating a short message to his Facebook followers. His second most popular video is a live discussion between Simon and a small number of other individuals. Finally, the third top video is a live video of a mass meeting at Zebbug.

The top video posted by Simon Busuttil received:

  • over 1,100 comments
  • over 3,800 reactions – including over 2,800 likes and 506 loves

It seems, firstly, from the top two videos, that Simon Busuttil’s followers on Facebook are reacting more to videos that take a more personal approach. These videos feature either Busuttil on his own or with a very small group of people. It can also be noted that they interact more with shorter, more concise videos that provide quick snippets of information. The top video is 2 minutes 34 seconds while the second top video is 21 minutes 21 seconds long.

Comparing the top video posted by Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil it can be seen that Joseph’s video has received more engagement.

  • Joseph Muscat’s top video received a total of 7,490 interactions
  • Simon Busuttil’s top video received a total of 5,300 interactions

Taking this at face value it seems that Joseph Muscat has a more engaging following. However, take into account the number of people who have liked each of these Facebook pages gives a clearer insight.

  • Joseph Muscat’s Facebook Page: 80,540 likes – 9.3% of his followers interacted to his top video
  • Simon Busuttil’s Facebook Page: 41,565 like – 12.8% of his followers interacted to his top video

Proportionately, more of Simon Busuttil’s followers are interacting with his videos than Joseph Muscat’s followers are with his. Nevertheless we cannot neglect the importance of social reach which Muscat is able to ascertain through his large follower base.


In the previous Twitter analysis, ICON reviewed both the Twitter handle for Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil. The approach was to look at the followers of each account and to directly compare them against each other, their geographic locations, most active hours and the recency of these followers tweets. Read the conclusions from that analysis here. As the political campaigns come to a close, ICON will focus on the growth of total followers, interactions and the top content posted by each respective candidate. We will also be taking a look into who Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil follow, and more significantly, looking at who they both follow as these accounts, or more so, the people behind them, may have some interesting influence in current affairs. With that in mind it’s relevant to note that Twitter is not a dominant social channel in Malta.

Growth of Total Followers

The graph below analysis the growth of total followers between the 1st May – 31st May. It is clear that Joseph Muscat has seen the most growth in followers during the last month increasing his follower count by 769, while Simon Busuttil increased his follower count by 212. This can largely be accounted for due to the fact that Joseph Muscat’s pre-existing following and the current position he holds as Prime Minister (thus the global attention he receives), is much larger than Simon Busuttil’s.

Interactions per 1,000 Users

Interactions on Twitter include all the replies, retweets and favourites received. Breaking down the followers of both to the amount of interaction per 1,000 users gives a more proportionate insight into the amount of interaction each is receiving. It’s interesting to note that even though Joseph Muscat has a larger following, Simon Busuttil’s followers are interacting more with what he tweets.

Top Content

The table below highlights the top tweets of both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil combined. This is measured by the total interaction per 1,000 users so as to retain proportionality. The ‘top content’ was tweeted by Joseph Muscat, however, this tweet was about AC Milan and unrelated to his political campaign. Out of the top 8 tweets, the only content related to the election campaign or politics was tweeted by Simon Busuttil as may be seen below.

Comparison of Users Simon Busuttil & Joseph Muscat

Comparing the number of users both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil follow, it can be seen that Simon Busuttil follows a greater amount of users. Joseph Muscat tends to be more reserved with whom he chooses to follow. Both tend to follow users they perceive as their peers, both nationally and internationally. Interestingly, Simon Busuttil follows Joseph Muscat, while the latter does not follow Busuttil.

The 43 users that they both follow are listed below. The majority are media entities and/or journalists. This makes sense as they provide up-to-date news on happenings around Malta and the world, something any political leader should be following. They also follow a number of presidents and world leaders who can be perceived as their peers. As well as this, they both follow two Maltese celebrities, Ira Losco and Joseph Calleja.

  • 1,218 users followed by SimonBusuttil
  • 196 users followed by JosephMuscat_JM
  • Followed by SimonBusuttil » 1,175 – 85.7%
  • Followed by JosephMuscat_JM » 153 – 11.2%
  • Followed by both » 43 – 3.1%

What are the most common types of people/industries that both follow?

  • Media / Journalists: 22
  • Politicians / Presidents: 11
  • Celebrity: 2
Real Name / Screen Name Industry
Dr Andrew Azzopardi Academic / Media
Ira Losco Celebrity
Joseph Calleja Celebrity
Adrian Dominic Ellul Commisioner for Youth Services
Brincs EU
Government of Malta Government
Saviour Balzan Journalist
Glenn Beddingfield Journalist
Mark Micallef Journalist
Christian Peregin Journalist
Ariadne Massa Journalist
Kurt Sansone Journalist
Hermen Grech Journalist
The Economist Media
Sky News Media
Matthew Vella Media
Anthony David Gatt Media
Keith Dimicoli Media
MaltaToday Media
Alison Bezzina Media
The Guardian Media
Rosanne Zammit Media
Miriam Dalli Media
EU Council Press Media
Times of Malta Media
Television Malta Media
DOI Malta Media
Prof Edward Scicluna Politican
President Trump Politican
Matteo Renzi Politician
Chris Fearne Politician
Bill Clinton Politician
Hillary Clinton Politician
President Obama Politician
Fancois Hollande Politician
Donald J Trump Politican
Marie-Louise Coleiro Politican
VisitMalta Tourism Authority
James Piscopo Transport
Valletta 2018 Upcoming Major Event

Party Websites

The information and analysis listed below are a snapshot of the Partit Laburista (PL) and Forza Nazzjonali (FN) websites on the last days of the campaign: between the 31st May and 1st June 2017. The party websites are important tools to the electoral campaigns as they are repositories of information which can only be obtained from such sites, such as:

  • The candidates running for office
  • The electoral programmes and the parties’ calendars of events.
  • Donation tools.
  • The majority of the parties’ communications, for instance, social media posts, newsletters and press releases typically lead users to these sites.


The PL website is which is a strategic decision. Instead of focusing on ‘Partit Laburista’ or ‘Labour Party’ the Prime Minister himself is the focal point. In contrast, FN has chosen a different tactic, it uses its website, to focus on Malta as a nation instead of on its party leader.

It’s highly evident that both political parties have implemented a very different approach when it comes to key messaging, visual identity and communications.

Use of Visuals

The main image used on the PL homepage is the Prime Minister himself, the same image used as a profile picture across his social media pages as well as physical billboards erected in the country. This is consistent across all PL’s communications. On the other hand, the main image used by FN is of an energetic young man and woman draped by the Maltese flag with a large crowd of people in the background.

The FN uses various images of politicians including the PN leader, its deputy leaders, and various other party members within the coalition. It’s important to mention that FN’s visual-approach has been to consistently focus on colourful, team photos rather than individual head-shots. This is consistent throughout its communications which are effective. An example of Simon Busuttil and his partner Kristina Chetcuti appears below.

Use of Logos

Both parties do not display traditional party emblems on their websites, however, use their political campaign logos instead; L’Aqwa Zmien (PL) and Jien Naghzel Malta (FN). The FN website contains a very small PN logo within the footer and as a Favicon however this is probably ignored by most casual users.

Use of Colours

Both websites use colours very differently. The PL uses a variety of pastel colours, whereas the FN uses a deep blue as the main colour (the PN’s distinguished colour), red and white (the colours of the Maltese flag). It’s interesting to note that the PL website doesn’t make much use of its illustrious red and white colours much save for the representation of the Maltese flag.


PL’s website is mainly in English apart from the section related to proposals where the headline message is in Maltese and the proposal documents are available in both languages. The FN website is available in Maltese only, however, there are certain sections of the site, for instance, the Electoral Programme section which is available in both Maltese and in English.

Historically, both parties have used different terminology for this key document and this hasn’t changed. PL call it Electoral Manifesto and PN label it Electoral Programme.

Main Content (Above the Fold)

Joseph Muscat

The PL website uses a scrolling banner which contains the campaign logo (L’Aqwa Zmien) and a message about its other channels, encouraging people to download the party’s official App which is available on the iOs App Store and Google Play Store. The next 3 banners are about the programme’s key proposals with the final banner containing a link to 26-minute video labelled ‘the Maltese dream‘ which displays Joseph Muscat discussing PL’s main achievements over the past 4 years.

The site features a menu at the top of the page which includes the following sections:

  • Achievements – PL’s main achievements over the last 4 years.
  • Proposals – PL’s key proposals for the next 5 years including:
    • Tax
    • Infrastructure
    • Health
    • The environment
    • Education
    • Business
    • Gozo
    • Pensions and the elderly
  • Image and video gallery.
  • News and press releases.
  • Events – a calendar of events. (both past and future)
  • Vision – PL’s vision for the next 5 years.
  • Volunteer – a section for people to fill in an application form and become a volunteer.

The mid-section within the homepage contains a variety of functional icons which include; Donations, the Manifesto, the Candidates, a Newsletter sign up and key information for voting. When clicking on a candidate’s name, the site links users to the individual’s Facebook page.

The site seems to be running on a WordPress CMS backend and an HTML5 framework and theme known as: ‘Reverie-Master’.

Forza Nazzjonali

The main content featured on the Forza Nazzjonali homepage (above the fold), are the campaign logo (Jien Naghzel Malta), the Electoral Programme, the programmes for Gozo and the youth. The site is arrange in a grid-like format which facilitates navigation – especially for inexperienced web users.

As you scroll further down the FN homepage comprises of:

  • The Simon Busuttil Blog
  • The List of PN and PD Candidates
  • The Calendar of Events
  • A section on How to Vote
  • Evidence related to the Panama Scandal – this contains reports from the FIAU (Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit)
  • A leader-board on contributors to FN’s social channels.

Within the FN she is the Ideat section which was launched by FN in May 2017 and is dedicated to: (i) crowdsourcing  ideas to encourage collaborative innovation, and (ii) rating top-down FN proposals. Electronic Democracy is all about empowerment, about giving the voter a voice. All citizens can propose their own ideas and open them up for discussion. Since its’s launch less than a month ago, the site registered a vote (for an against an idea) every few seconds as well as around 3,000 ideas.

The FN site seems to run on a custom-built CMS with modules provided by Nation Builder.

Big Data featured on The Independent

This series of analytical studies have been made possible due to ICON’s partnership with Minely and The Malta Independent, who have featured this analysis on their website. This partnership has allowed ICON to delve deeper into the data and provide social sentiment analysis. By doing so, ICON and The Malta Independent have been able to bring this data to you in a responsive and timely manner.

Key Learnings

The scope of ICON’s analysis was to gather the key digital aspects which emerged in the Maltese 2017 electoral campaign. While further analysis is necessary we can list a number of best practices which emerge from: (i) our review of social-sentiment based on our Big-Data project, as well as (ii) our previous two reports (see here and here):

  • ICON’s big data initiative was the only experiment veering away from traditional polling methods – most of which failed to correctly predict the PL victory that emerged. This will undoubtedly become a critical part of all future campaigns both in terms of predicting user behaviour and in terms of reviewing retrospective digital actions.
  • Audience targeting is a critical aspect of social messaging and will grow in size and scope as targeting facilities improve. However the methods with which the FN and PL campaigns identified their audience seems pretty basic and mainly limited to general demographics (age, gender, locality). As a result, for example, the campaign websites did not have targeted content to appeal to the users – pensioners and youth would experience the same interface and content. In more sophisticated campaigns, it is common place to analyse individuals in minute detail based on their Facebook activity to extract personas for improved targeting. This is based on understanding data to generate psychometric variables to overview user-personality and then develop reams of content for each of these personas.
  • Reach and engagement remain typical metrics of interest for the campaigns. ICON would like to understand whether these variables also result in conversion via voter-influence. Further research is required however our user-activity graph got pretty close to predicting the actual result.
  • Whilst we were unable to analyse direct media buys (such as on Google PPC) it is evident that significant budgets were available to both parties for such activity. Here too targeting seemed somewhat limited and a ‘carpet-bombing’ approach seemed to be a preferred route. This seems based on the media maxim of repetition to stimulate top-of-min recollection.
  • Retargeting activity across social and web channels is becoming the norm. This keeps the campaign visibility online with strongest supporters and influential undecided voters who visit the party’s site at the most critical time of the campaign.
  • Our analysis did not delve into email communication however it’s worth noting that this remains a strong tool in Malta, possibly with some implications from a Data Protection perspective. In general we expect open-rates to have declined as the use of this channel by both parties increased. Here more analysis is required to determine whether different sender names stimulated better open rates, which formats worked best and which other A/B results provided the most successful conversions.
  • While we were not able to detect all the tracking codes embedded in the source code of both party sites it’s likely that there has been a degree of user-tracking to provide both parties with analytical insights. We’d wish to deliver into whether this tracking provided useful in message-formulation.
  • SEO tactics seem to have been of secondary important to the campaigns possibly because name recognition in Malta is high. We believe however that both parties have missed an opportunity to position themselves well on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for issue-based keywords. The mainstream media have claimed that space.
  • Personalisation also seems to have been of lesser importance to the campaigns. There’s a golden opportunity to better profile users and thus serve content which is specific and intended to grasp the user’s attention. This seems to have been almost entirely absent from both party campaigns.
  • In 2016 the Trump campaign manager was famously quoted to have said: “The more outrageous you are, the more attention you get”. It seems like this advice didn’t apply to Busuttil and Muscat who (on their official channels) generally conducted a sober and structured campaign.

The political campaigns did not present anything specifically novel in terms of digital campaigning – perhaps this is because Malta seems to still interact with offline data sources (see here). Nevertheless we have seen some good traction in terms of the employment of FB-Live as a method of political communication, and the digital democracy model employed by the Forza Nazzjonali to attract crowd-sourced involvement. There is tremendous power in opening citizen access to politics which, as we have seen in other industries, may have a transformative approach.


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