With the disappointing turnout for the recent European elections, is social media the way to encourage increased political engagement ahead of the 2015 general election? Is it being used this way at the moment? If so, by whom and in what ways?
Social media is unique in that it offers a wealth of information that is constantly updated and appeals predominantly to those in the 18 – 24 age bracket who are so often criticised for their low voter turnout. After conducting some research into this area it was clear that much previous analysis on political socialisation has been on older people. Our research, therefore, focused on the political behaviour of the elusive 18 – 24 age group, whether they are using social media and, if so, whether it is for political purposes.
Our clear finding is that young people are using social media for political purposes. This was expressed well in one of our focus groups, where one participant compared social media with traditional forms of leafleting and explained that Twitter was far more likely to make her politically active, as it is accessible, she can share it with her friends, and she can access all sides of the debate. This is supported by responses from our questionnaire, as more than half of over 500 respondents (69%) reported using social media for political purposes.
Further information showed that over half (56%) share articles from online newspapers, a quarter (27%) share petitions, and a fifth (20%) share political blogs and political events. This clearly shows that social media is an arena where young people are engaging in politics.
However, the impact this has on political engagement is questionable. Participants acknowledged that, despite becoming more politically educated, social media hasn’t made them more active. This is consistent with Yamamoto and Kushin’s finding with reference to the 2008 Presidential election in the US. Instead, users are able to get their political sentiments off their chest in the form of a tweet or a status and are no longer inclined to protest or write to their local MP.
We also found that this trend wasn’t only indicative of the 18 – 24 year olds but was echoed by many 25 – 35 year olds. We found that nearly everyone (90%) in the older age group reported being politically active on social media. This supports data collected by Buffer that shows that Twitter and Facebook are most used by 18 – 29 year olds.
From these findings it is clear to see that social media is being used for political purposes, although this doesn’t always result in a rise in political engagement in the form of voting. However it does seem to be causing a rise in the interest that young people have in less conventional forms of politics, as social networks are opening up their minds to the ideas of campaigners, petitions and blogs and giving them the opportunity to engage in these broader forms of political participation.
It is still unclear what impact the increased use of social media for political purposes will have on the 2015 general election, as very few reported using it for party politics. This is perhaps less because they are uninterested in using social media for these purposes than that the political parties themselves are not using social media effectively as a campaigning tool. They continue to rely on more traditional forms of encouraging votes, whereas younger voters would be far more likely to engage with party politics if campaigns were brought in to the digital age. Examples of this could be creating infograms with how their policies cater to young people in comparison to other parties – these are easy to read and equally easy to share, such as this example from the US context. It is unclear from our research whether this would achieve greater political participation in the UK, but the 2015 election would be very interesting to observe – should any party chose to adopt these innovative campaigning techniques.
Emma Pearce is a student in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. She researched and wrote this piece as part of her work for the Designing Political Research module.