social media

Can social media influence the general election?

Written by Alex Veeneman

MPs returned to the Commons today (1 September) for what will be widely seen by political observers as a session to watch for as the general election in May draws near.

MPs returned to the Commons today (1 September) for what will be widely seen by political observers as a session to watch for as the general election in May draws near. But as the election approaches and MPs reach out to their constituents to check on support, questions arise as to the engagement of the younger demographic.

However, a recent study from the youth charity vInspired, and the marketing research company OnePoll, indicate that two-thirds of those under the age of 25 believe that their votes could be won if politicians delivered their manifestos through social media and if politics could be easier to understand in that format, according to a report from The Guardian.

The study was released in conjunction with vInspired’s Swing the Vote campaign, utilising the hashtag #swingthevote. In a blog post on their web site, the charity says that 56 per cent of youth did not vote in the last general election, which resulted in a hung parliament for the first time since 1974.

Hit and miss

vInspired says there are 6.8 million youth voters in the UK.

Some parties have responded to this. The Guardian report adds that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg will release the top 5 manifesto promises for under 25s on Twitter. UKIP also tried to get a hashtag #WhyImVotingUKIP trending, but saw difficulties as posts emerged.

Yet, in the long term, can social media engage youth in politics, and further, have an effect on the general election? In a telephone interview, Lizzie Roberts, a history and politics student at Lancaster University, says social media is a bit of a hit and miss. While an MP and the Prime Minister can be reached via Twitter, Roberts says there is a concern of cohesiveness when trying to appeal to the electorate.

Roberts says politicians are using Twitter to promote ideas, but are also trying to be one of the members of the public.

“It doesn’t work both ways,” Roberts said.

‘They don’t think their vote matters’

Indeed, for the purposes of manifestos on social media, Roberts says it depends on the format.

“If they uploaded the manifesto in the same way, it would not make a difference,” Roberts said. “People don’t take manifestos seriously. If they uploaded little sound bites or clips and put it on social media, it will have more of an impact. Young people will more likely read a tweet than look for [it on a] web site.” 

Roberts adds that if there was an app available for young people to vote, it would be used. Most ballot places are open from 7am to 10pm, and some just don’t go. The appeal is online, Roberts says. She wants to get people interested ahead of the vote, and the interest from the youth electorate could have a significant affect.

“I want to get people interested, and I want to get my friends to vote next year,” Roberts said. “For some people it doesn’t mean anything. Everything that goes on is affected by politics and who is in government. Some don’t see it like that. A lot of young people don’t vote because they don’t think the vote matters. If a large amount of young people voted, the electorate would want to hear from us.”

Influential…to what extent?

However, Roberts says, more must be done, particularly in the system of British politics itself, to engage with younger voters.

“People believe British politics is just a load of old men in their 60s from Oxford and Cambridge,” Roberts said. “There is still a long way to go to connect Westminster to online, and appeal to young people. Way to appeal is online and social media – it’s not face to face or letters. If you want to get in contact with a young person, it’s through Twitter or Facebook. Parties need to encourage youth participation and voting.”

As the countdown to the election gets underway with this new session of Parliament, campaigning on social media by all political parties is likely to intensify. To what magnitude, Roberts says, solely lies on one factor.

“Social media will have an influence next year,” Roberts said. “How much depends on the parties.”

What do you think? How much of an influence will social media have on the election in May? How can young people get engaged in politics? Have your say in the comments section below.