Social media: does it influence political participation?

The most important factor in improving participation is persuading voters that the election (and the political process more generally) is relevant to them and that their vote matters. That is the responsibility of politicians – of all parties, and at all levels of governance – and, arguably, the media.” The Electoral Commission 

Disengagement with mainstream politics, particularly among young people, is a common concern among politicians.  But in an age of all things digital, and with the growth of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, there are undoubtedly more ways than ever to engage people with politics.

It seems that traditional election campaigns of door-to-door canvassing, local meetings and incessant letter box mailings are being surpassed by a new age of digital campaigning, with hashtags, retweets and ‘likes’ all a familiar occurrence.

But with a little over two weeks until voters across the UK go to the polls, has the electorate become more engaged?


Lack of engagement

Low voter turnout has been an increasing concern in the UK. Last year’s general election saw a 66.1% turnout – the largest in 18 years. However, this was still significantly lower than the highest ever turnout at a general election in 1950, which reached 83.9%.

It has been even worse for local and European elections, and during the first Police and Crime Commissioners election in 2012, turnout was just 15% – the lowest recorded level of participation in a peacetime non-local government election in the UK.

As our previous blog on voter engagement highlighted, the latest government figures show there has also been a drop in the number of registered voters.

A general mistrust of politicians and the centralised model of governance in the UK is also apparent. And this is particularly the case among young people. Findings from the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study showed that 80% of young adults reported very low levels of trust in politicians in the run up to the 2015 general election.

Despite this, a majority of young adults said they were either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to vote in the election and many were engaging in some kind of political activity – nearly 90% were members of a social networking site, and over half this group used social media to engage with political or civic material.

According to a recent report that examined the relationship between the media and the electorate in the 2015 general election, “engagement with young voters worked best where media brands met them on their own ‘turf’ – online, on social media, and particularly on Facebook”.


Role of social media

Social media platforms certainly offer new ways to encourage citizen engagement and provide a level of transparency otherwise unseen in political discourse.

recent report from the Design Commission argues that social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, can dramatically reduce the perceived ‘barrier’ between the electorate and political decision-makers.

It points to the unprecedented voter turnout witnessed during the Scottish referendum (84% – last seen in the UK in the 1950’s) and notes that whilst it was a generation-defining decision, “it can be argued that effective social media usage engaged the populace in conversation and debate and encouraged democratic participation, especially in younger age groups”. The referendum generated 10 million interactions and there were more than 4 million tweets on the topic between August 1st and September 8th.

Similarly, a study of 16-19 year-olds who voted for the first time in the Scottish referendum highlighted that social media were generally useful tools for political communication and engagement, particularly amongst the younger generations. Reasons cited, included:

  • their ubiquity
  • their ease of use and accessibility
  • that they can give rise to a feeling of community and shared values
  • that they serve as an alternative information source to the ‘biased’ press and media.

An Ipsos Mori poll also found that a majority of Britons believe social media gives people a voice who would not normally take part in political debate and is breaking down the barriers between the electorate and politicians. And, again, it highlighted that social media has the potential to have an even greater impact on 18-24 year olds, a third of whom think social media will influence their vote.


Help or hindrance?

While many believe social media is a tool of empowerment and transparency, others argue that it does not help the political process by improving people’s understanding of political parties, or the issues, but rather leads to a ‘a trivialization of the electoral process’.

Ipsos Mori’s study found that people also recognised the disadvantages of social media, with most believing it is making debate more divisive and superficial.

It could be argued that inflammatory comments made on social media could stir up hostility and lead to aggravated debates, thereby detracting from serious political debate. Or that the use of slang can lead to confusion and ambiguity, potentially contributing to a lack of meaningful discussion.

There is also the issue of space constraints with some social media, such as the 140 character limit for Twitter, which can make it even more difficult for arguments to be conveyed in the way intended. And the accuracy of information provided should also be considered.


Final thoughts

Nevertheless, it is clear that social media does play a role in engaging people who may otherwise not participate in political debate.

However, what isn’t clear, as concluded by the report on the 2015 general election, is that “despite the millions of tweets, retweets, posts, likes, shares, and views, there is no evidence that social media played a decisive role either in boosting engagement and turnout, or in the election result.”

That is not to say that social media won’t play this role in future elections, if its growth continues and if those of the digital generation move into key political and media roles – #GE2020?

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