Media & Press Media - Text

[MEDIA] Could TikTok teens actually make a difference in elections? @GetTheFocus

I chatted to a journalist from The Focus last week:

Dr Bex Lewis, an expert in digital marketing and digital culture at Manchester Metropolitan University, says that humour as a way of critiquing our elected officials, is a longstanding British tradition.

The risk with these videos in particular, she said, is that humouring Boris Johnson may not be as effective as serious criticism of his work.

“He’s always tried to portray himself as a bit of a buffoon, and I’ve got a lot of friends who think that’s really dangerous,” Lewis said. “So these videos could be playing into that image, or they could be highlighting his flaws – it could kind of go two ways.”

You can read the full piece here.

Media & Press Media - Audio

[MEDIA] Does social media threaten democracy, for The Political Exchange Podcast @TWRuk

Earlier this week I recorded material for TWR-UK, for The Political Exchange Podcast. The story was triggered by an article in The Economist, questioning whether social media threatens democracy. Here’s the recording from the session (original on TWR-UK site):

Here’s my notes in preparation:

How have you felt observing negative stories about the negative impact of social media on democracy?

  • Sigh at the continual determination of ‘the media’ (especially that which is threatened by social media) to represent social media as something negative, and not highlight the positive opportunities. #moralpanic
  • However, don’t think social media is ‘perfect’, so there are aspects of how it works that need challenging – for sure – whether legally, or bottom up, etc.
  • Internet has enabled low cost for entry barriers, building truth with audiences, law/regulation harder to enforce BUT STILL online tends to be offline power structures, etc. AMPLIFIED (and it’s not always the visible stuff – e.g. both major political parties in last election spend £000s on advertising, keywords, etc. and most of that’s not on social networks, but e.g. search, paid adverts, etc.
  • In some ways, we give the medium itself too much power – we have too many expectations and fears of the medium (technological determinism)

What are the positives of social media when it comes to engaging with politics?

  • Wrote a piece at the last election re how social media was ‘speaking the language’ of the people, getting people to vote (though generally perceived that those who were got on board would vote Labour, so Telegraph didn’t support it)
  • So, a chance to involve people, a chance to reach people without going through media ‘owned’ by a few people – although rather idealistic!
  • People think that social media is all about an echo chamber, but opens up lots of different ideas. Can be transformative for thinking. Takes effort though! E.g. follow Trump if you don’t agree with him – try and understand why people support him, etc.

Have you any thoughts about how we can harness the positives and leave some of the negatives behind

  • Direct contact with voters, ‘free’ advertising via YouTube, viral campaigns, personalised messages, feedback, listening to public opinion, getting different views, connecting with others similar, micropayments for support, policies online so less paper, etc., interact, responsive, real-time, targeted advertising, hashtags, etc. all can be used well/badly, and a lot is a mix of voter attitudes, legal power, etc. People feel included, etc.
  • People ARE reading the news, we can get e.g. comparison sites for manifestos, strategic vote swapping (qus?), emailing political leader (though can be auto-sends), online petitions, showing have voted – encourages others:
  • See these extracts from the Washington Post:

Some research finds that any effects of online news on political participation – such as voting, advocacy or self-expression – still depend on traditional factors such as how interested in politics someone is to begin with. Other studies find that exposure to information, even for audiences that are not seeking it, can increase political participation, at least online. But research also suggests that the increase occurs mostly among those already interested in news and politics.” “One study found that those who avoid conflict tend to dislike political posts. Those who say they enjoy conflict, on the other hand, post political content more frequently. This study concluded that young voters are open to political information on social media only when it is presented in a civil manner.”

What would you define as the major threats to democracy from social media?

  • CAN be seen as an opportunity to ‘flatten hierarchies’, but in reality old power structures still have power, they just have it in new spaces – also see how so much power is in e.g. Facebook – it started as something small, but now is one of the most-used/most-powerful platforms in the world – we can choose how to use for good/bad, but also need to hold the companies to account, e.g. algorithms. See this extract from The Guardian: “Not all of that comes from automation. It also comes from the news culture, bubbles of education, and people’s ability to do critical thinking when they read the news. But the proximate cause of misinformation is Facebook serving junk news to large numbers of users.”

We often hear about #fakenews. How can we diagnose a fake news story when we see it?

  • See notes from Greenbelt/St John’s session: follow the £ publishing it, be aware of advertorials – biggest tip – read a range of versions of the story from different sources.
  • Liked some of the suggestions at the end of the Economist article, re e.g. ensuring it’s clear what comes from Bots, who is behind each publication, etc. and likely that legal processes will be needed for this.
  • Be aware are some humourous sites that can be pretty on the money, getting beneath the skin – but so close to real these days can be hard to tell!

How do you feel about the quote in the article in the Economist about how social media ‘reinforces bias’ and ‘aggravate partisanship’?

  • Social Media – filter bubbles/echo chambers – we hear a lot about it, and it can be a real thing, but v. interesting study earlier this year via com: “Gentzkow and Shapiro stress in the paper, “Is the Internet Causing Political Polarization? Evidence from Demographics,” that it is possible social media can further polarize people. But people who don’t use the internet are already the most polarized, which suggests that the internet and social media aren’t a cause for extreme religious or political beliefs.” – older groups demonstrated most polarisation, younger groups (most users) the least (CABLE TV likely a more powerful medium)
  • Some useful advice from The New Statesman re breaking out of filter bubbles in order to deliberately expose ourselves to views other than our own, including hiding ‘likes’ from pages you don’t really like, second account, etc. [Neoliberal individualism].

Is it a bit unfair to call a site like Facebook a place where ‘pettiness, scandal and outrage’ are rife?

  • Well, it’s true, but only as much as most other meeting places are – there are SO many people on there – can see worst & best of life. In many ways the visible content is the ‘small talk’, which is going to deal with the ‘small stuff’, people also share the kind of stuff we see in celeb magazines, and build on long trend of media headlines that are designed to create outrage – it has not been developed in a vacuum, so builds on old power bases. Part of larger qu re how revolutionary is it all … change of scale, and also as we’ve talk about filter bubbles, etc.
  • Like the brick analogy – can use for good & bad … certain affordances/constraints but revolution’s are often slower than we think.

Encouragement for Christians who want to be politically engaged online?

  • I’d start at Christians in Politics site – – “To see Christians responding to God’s call to positive engagement in party politics and government.” Seek to put God’s kingdom before tribal politics – demonstrate ways to disagree with grace, but be fully involved. We’re living in ‘heaven on earth’, so how do we put out biblical understanding into practice – politics underlies our way of living (homes, jobs, welfare, families) – we can impact – be salt & light, etc. I particularly love “Participate in decision-making, rather than just commentating or criticising from the side-lines.” ONLINE is part of our whole lives – where relationships are – we can make a difference to what is shared/important to people … we need to think about how we engage and break our bubbles. They highlight Biblical reasons:

“Well, for a start, there are lots of biblical reasons to do so. Voting recognises the equality of all people and their right to speak and be heard (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). What is more voting is a simple yet significant way we can do something about politics in our nation (Psalms 34:14). And it is one way that we can obey God’s command to seek the good of those around us and our nation as a whole (Jeremiah 29: 5-6).” *Can demonstrate how Biblical thinking impacts the specific policies that we wish to support – demonstrate intelligent engagement.

Media & Press Media - Visual

[PRESS] Comment: Youth, social media and the election #GE2017

For the 2015 election Dr Bex Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing, examined the role played by social media in the election and considered its influence on younger voters, specifically those within the 18-24 bracket. With the General Election of 2017 tomorrow, she returns to the topic and considers whether much has changed. Read full article, watch the video:

Front page of MMU website:

You can also read the original draft of the document (more links, less edits!).


Challenge and Inspiration: #GWLOct15

Gathering of Women Leaders started very small back in 2012 (here’s the original ideas – PDF) – I first visited one in 2013, and have endeavoured to make it to at least one every year (there have been three, next year there will be two), despite living a long way out of London – as I have formed some excellent relationships, friendships, and networking opportunities there (often all come together!) – whilst gaining the opportunity to hear from a wide range of women about issues, stories, celebrations that we can discuss.

Initially I’d been a little wary about joining a women’s group – these come with connotations of knitting, childcare, etc discussion – but I knew the people who were inviting me – and they were right – there was lots of meaty topics to get involved in – over time I’ve heard about the arts, theatre, women in ordained roles, women in everyday roles, domestic violence, FGM, and generally from women changing the world from where they are. Deeply inspiring. Deeply challenging.

We have a range of networking opportunities, then it’s onto the speakers. This time we had Jessie Joe Jacobs – award winning charity founder, and now activist with the Labour Party – determined to undertake structural change, rather than dealing with the effects of poor policy, especially with relation to poverty (and benefits):

We then heard from Emily Chalke – who has a lifelong passion for helping women be freed from prostitution and trafficking, and has been setting up a home for those women who tend to fall through the cracks in the system – she ran from Edinburgh to London to raise £30k to help kickstart it:

We also heard from Catriona Robertson, currently interim director for the Christian Muslim Forum alongside other roles – who is “interested in how people live well and equitably together without having to be the same. ”

We finished the day with q&a, and in group conversation about the themes that had rung through the day, and what we thought we were going to take away from it (aside from the left over sandwiches) … 


(I may have started the day with a few tweets from #GWL15!)

The next one is March 5th 2016 – keep an eye on the website for more information.

Digital Writer

[Comment Piece] Youth, Social Media and the Election #GE2015

Russell Brand’s trailer for an interview with Ed Milliband on The Trews is nearing 250,000 views, and a large number of commenters on his site are applauding Milliband for being prepared to engage with the tough questions – and the disillusioned voters. Russell Brand, famously, has never voted, and urges his followers not to bother on Election Day, as he doesn’t believe that voting makes a difference. Statistics show that 18-24 year olds do have some of the lowest turnouts at elections, and that a large number of those believe that they do not have a real say, as politicians break promises, don’t listen, are inauthentic, and ‘all the same’.

Last month, an Ipsos MORI survey indicated that 34% of 18-24 year olds believe that their sympathies will be influenced by something they’ve encountered on social media, compared to 13% of the general population. The New Statesman indicated that they believed that “the party that can best adapt to this arena could be the one that tips the balance in a tight election.” So far, however, the political parties appear largely to be using an old fashioned broadcast style, preaching to the converted, and not really using the opportunities to listen, or engage in conversation with disillusioned or floating voters. Even the Green Party’s “viral video” Change the Tune largely ‘preached’, rather than encouraged engagement.

Isabel Hardman of The Spectator described this as “broadcast-only pretty-picture-focused strategy”, encouraging politicians to “fake it”, and seeking a level of control that doesn’t sit well within social media:

If a party leader is worried that a chance encounter with a voter reveals what he or she really thinks, then perhaps he or she needs to have a think about what he or she thinks.

Young people are incredibly active on social media, including in relation to politics. Some see social media as making the debate more divisive and superficial than it needs to be, whilst others see it as breaking down the barriers between voters and parties: I received a tweet indicating that one voter “have been tweeting my two fave candidates. It helped me make my decision”. In true pop-worship style, ‘Abby’, a seventeen year old currently revising for AS Levels started the #milifandom campaign, social media has been used to encourage sign up for voting, and Sky hosts a ‘Stand Up Be Counted’ space for 16-25 year olds to debate the issues that matter to them. Knowing that others are voting for minority parties has also encouraged greater engagement, with users using tools such as Vote for Policies, and Vote Swap, sites such as COADEC, which look at manifestos from a particular perspective, whilst apps such as Digital Mysteries seek to get young people interested and engaged in the issues of the election.

As indicated in Raising Children in a Digital Age, although children aren’t ‘digital natives’ who are ‘fundamentally different from us’, they have grown up in a time when the digital is an embedded part of their everyday life. Most politicians are clearly not using social media in an embedded way, but as a digital marketing tool, and this is seen as inauthentic. We need to look at the underlying culture, whether traits such as collaboration, innovation, transparency, and openness belong solely to the younger generation, and reports such as the Ipsos MORI Who is Generation Next? which indicate what the concerns of the younger generation are, and what they might expect from their politicians. Young people want to know that they are being listened to, that their voices count, and that they are not being patronised.

We are not necessarily hearing from politicians in bitesize chunks, Ed Miliband’s recent encounter excepted, they are not really engaging in difficult conversations outside of television interviews. Digital users want solid content that they can get behind and share, and want opportunities to feed into policies, with real-time modification of responses. The Greens as a fringe party, are only 70,000 likes behind the Labour Party on Facebook, and only 20,000 followers behind the Conservatives on Twitter. Young people, however, are typically more likely to be found on peer-to-peer networks, and visual spaces such as Instagram and Pinterest, where there is even less political engagement. It’s also worth considering whether the whole ballot-box system is anachronistic – I won’t be the only one who voted via post a week ago, so for me the election is over.

Dr Bex Lewis is Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning for CODEC, Durham University, Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age (2014). 

Note: Durham University media team asked me to write this. Think others beat me to it with similar material, so have posted as if it was the time I wrote it!