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Social Media Democracy - Then and Now

Digital Politics

With the general election only a few months away, the end result is still anyone’s guess, but it almost definitely won’t end with a majority win. In 2010 there were a number of factors that resulted in the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition that we currently preside under, and one of them was social media. 


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When Tony Blair won his second term in 2005, Facebook was still in its infancy, Twitter didn't exist and the idea of appealing to voters via MySpace was laughable. In 2010 the surging support for Nick Clegg in the wake of his impressive performance in the leader debates was further fuelled by a weighty increase in online influence. The Liberal Democrat Facebook page rose to around 90,000 likes, only 10,000 shy of the Tories. The site also introduced a ‘Rate the Debate’ application which allowed users to decide who came out of each one looking the best. Unsurprisingly, Clegg won out every time. 

Elsewhere in other forms of mainstream media, Tory and Labour supporters began to malign Clegg, leading to a public opposition on Twitter, built around the #nickcleggsfault hashtag, which jokingly blamed him for a series of ridiculous things, like staging the moon landing. Whilst this spike in Lib Dem popularity was short-lived and ultimately led to a fairly severe decline in public approval after the election, it demonstrates just how much influence social media can have during election campaigns even by accident. In fact, premeditated attempts by the competing parties to use online platforms to gain votes were far less effective and frankly, a little tragic. 


SEO was almost as big of a sticking point then as it is now and both Labour and the Conservatives set their sights towards Google Adwords in order to pick up votes, with the latter bidding for both ‘David’ and ‘Cameron’ so that they could link them to a page full of negative press. The Tories instead opted for ‘Hung Parliament’ and did so successfully, their only competitor was Ann Summers, who had “Find out why we believe in a well hung parliament” on their home page at the time. 


Perhaps the most fascinating information came from the US. Collaborating with a few political scientists, Facebook conducted a social experiment (something they do all the time, frighteningly) to determine if social media could sway apathetic voters. People were shown an icon with a link to polling stations, then invited to click an ‘I voted’ button, as well as being shown which friends had done the same. The results were fascinating: 



“Overall, users notified of their friends’ voting were 0.39% more likely to vote than those in the control group, and any resulting decisions to cast a ballot also appeared to ripple to the behaviour of close Facebook friends, even if those people hadn’t received the original message. That small increase in turnout rates amounted to a lot of new votes. The researchers concluded that their Facebook graphic directly mobilised 60,000 voters, and, thanks to the ripple effect, ultimately caused an additional 340,000 votes to be cast that day. As they point out, [in 2000] George W Bush won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes – fewer than 0.01% of the votes cast in that state.”



That was 5 years ago; now social media is a more powerful promotional tool than ever before, particularly within the 18-25 demographic, one that all the major parties are keen to appeal to. Some interesting experiments have already started appearing, such as the ‘Vote for Policies’ quiz that cropped up during the European elections last year. The quiz listed all the policies of each major party without showing which parties they applied to. Users were invited to select the ones they found the most appealing, without there being any kind of bias in play. As of May 2014, 400,000 people had taken the survey and the results clearly indicated that, at least within the confines of social media, the Green Party are a favourable option. Their policies came out on top in 25% of cases, compared to 20% for Labour, 17% for the Lib Dems and 15% for the Conservatives. This kind of information appears to be the most effective means of appealing to the modern voter. 


Even more recently, social media had a big hand in the Scottish referendum, which famously had the largest voter turnout of any vote in the UK since 1950. According to a News UK survey done via YouGov, 54% of voters said that they took important information from social media platforms, whilst 39% said that it actually influenced their decision. 


It’s easy to understand why social media has become so effective. It’s an integral part of everyday life and presents information to people in a clear, concise way. Voter apathy can be assigned in part to the fact that people are not interested in making an active effort to seek out the information they need to reach a decision and also the fact that many people are dissatisfied with the current system, but see no alternative. Social media campaigning has answers for both of these issues. All the information is presented directly to the voters and those clamouring for change are often thrust into the limelight, like Russell Brand. Whatever happens now, social media has a big, pivotal role to play.



Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Social Media Democracy - Then and Now Reviewed by Callum Davies on Thursday, January 22, 2015 Rating: 5
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