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!