Stephen Logan

Could Social Media Cure Voter Apathy?

30th Apr 2010 Social Media 7 minutes to read

Can social media help energise the electorate and shape the way they choose to vote in the upcoming UK general election?

Last night saw the third and final leaders’ debate. Gordon Brown entered under the dark clouds of his latest faux pas, David Cameron in a storm of anonymity and Nick Clegg as the favourite to win. One of those could have been widely predicted this time two weeks ago, the other two, certainly not (I’ll let you be the judge on that).

Whereas once influence would come through local campaigning, the printed press and television/radio, today the battleground is far wider. Social media has come to the fore. Sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have provided a political mouthpiece. The Internet savvy electorate have been taking full advantage of this (comparatively) new found opportunity.

Within the past week or so we have been blessed with two perfect examples of how new media formats are asserting their influence. Both found on Twitter, #nickcleggsfault and #bigotedwoman are the hashtags that have dominated the trending topics.

As with everything on Twitter, trending has to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. This is purely because rankings are skewed by rampant retweeters, friend finders and bottom feeders. But even with these removed, the amount of public interaction on their pages suggests a level of interest and passion that would have previously gone unreported, if indeed it existed at all.

Can Twitter Hashtags Encourage Political Involvement

The interesting point in all this is that #nickcleggsfault was developed in direct retaliation to a slur campaign last week by newspapers [see: Twitter says it’s all Nick Clegg’s fault in ironic swipe at newspapers | The Guardian]. Whilst the Daily Mail received the majority of criticism for their part in the attacks (including a page on their site dedicated to stories on ‘The Great Liberal Deception’), The Express, Telegraph and others (all with different stories) also rounded on the Lib Dem leader following a conclusive victory in the first leaders debate. Newspaper politics is certainly isn’t anything new, but a medium on which to publicly respond is.

It would be false to claim that the old media isn’t having the influence it once had; but retaliation is far easier than it once was, so too is unedited comment. They have to monitor their own popularity so as not be out of kilter with public opinion and refrain from accusations that could see them pilloried. Indeed the newspapers are turning to Twitter for their stories in many instances, commenting on the hashtag madness that they inadvertently created (see example above).

Whilst the ebb and flow of Nick Clegg’s popularity is a nice talking point, it perhaps won’t have the ultimate impact that the Prime Minister’s comments to a pensioner in Rochdale might have. #Bigotgate, #bigotedwoman and Gordon Brown have all been trending since ‘that’ incident. The reaction, it seems, was instant.

Encouraging Engagement with Political Sites

Far from just discussing politics, the increased exposure generated by this and other major events on the campaign trail have resulted in clicks. Not just any clicks, but visits to the main parties’ websites. Hitwise have produced an interesting piece showing the correlation between visits to the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem websites and the main talking points [see: Bigot-gate and the role of social networks in the election].

The general pattern shows that visits are growing as we near judgement day. However, the individual visits coming from social media sites give us a better insight into the destination of choice. Whilst Labour’s third-placed position is no surprise, long-term leaders Conservatives have been jumped by the Liberal Democrats.

Blog Noise Continues to Grow

Moving from Experian to Nielsen, and the latest Blogpulse figures for the leaders show that, somewhat unsurprisingly, Gordon Brown is well clear of the rest. As we know, this isn’t for the best of reasons. But, as this highlights, simply looking at online volume about candidates isn’t without its flaws. The old adage, all publicity is good publicity, probably doesn’t apply here.

Interactive Leaders Debate on Facebook and Youtube

Where else can you turn to satisfy your political interest online? YouTube would be a good start. Their tie-in with Facebook to cover the ‘Digital Debate’ has seen the leaders answer questions through (carefully orchestrated) videos [for more details see: Will Social Media Help or Hinder the UK General Election?]. Of the 10 different issues covered, Nick Clegg conclusively won 9 thanks to the straw poll operating on the site. Again, not exactly an exact measurement, but one more new media source that bucks the trend of traditional coverage. To get involved, visit The YouTube and Facebook Digital Debate page.

Voter apathy has always been a huge problem. In the last election only 61.3% of registered voters actually bothered to visit the polls. The mark of this ‘digital election’ won’t necessarily be in who wins, but in who turns up to vote. If everybody talking up Nick Clegg’s chances on Twitter vote Lib Dem, they might actually win. What we can’t judge yet is whether they will.

Will Twitter Tweets Convert to Votes?

It has been levelled at social media that it is all froth and no substance. This morning, Daily Mail Managing Director James Broomley claimed that ‘the retweets did not match the number of reads of the article’ in relation to the highly publicised Jan Moir editorial piece on Stephen Gately’s death [see: Jan Moir, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Reputation Management in the Twitter Age]. Whilst the article garnered a record 25,000 complaints to the PCC, Mr. Broomley’s comments perhaps add weight to claims that Twitter might well be a good way to spread news, but it isn’t necessarily effective in prompting action [see: Mail Online MD: Twitter users didn’t read Gately article | Press Gazette].

This election could well give further credence to this theory or blow it out of the water entirely. After all, as our potential next Prime Minister once said, “too many tweets make a…(well you know the rest)”, so maybe the mobilisation of the Twittering masses isn’t as strong as some fear or expect.

The Role of Facebook Fan Pages

So what do the people of Facebook have to say about the election? The latest figures, at least in terms of popularity, tend to indicate that the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg are the major winners here. Unthinkable not all that long ago, but their main page has attracted 73,952 fans, just behind the Conservatives’ 74,097 and leagues ahead of Labour back on just 35,757 fans.

When it comes to the Leaders themselves though, Nick Clegg is the runaway leader, with 51,470 fans of the Lib Dem top dog. Gordon Brown has a lowly 8,445 fans (although there is a secondary page which also has 4,928) whilst David Cameron has a respectable 32,940. However, the bad news for Dave is that the ‘Not Voting for David Cameron’ page has actually beaten his support, showing 33,535 fans. (All figures correct as of 09:30 this morning)

Again, we can get a little too caught up in the respective numbers here. I think it would be fair to say that the demographic of Facebook probably doesn’t match that of the wider voting population, certainly not proportionally anyway. There are around 46 million registered voters in the UK, so these figures only represent the views of a very small minority. Plus, as fans they still have no obligation to vote that way – indeed many might be ineligible to do so.

However, from the parties’ figures alone, we can see that involvement in politics is significant. With over 180,000 Facebook users nailing their colours to the mast, the efforts of social media sites to engage users and politicians to use online social channels is clearly paying dividends.

Difficulties in Gauging Effectiveness of Social Media

What is difficult to judge though is how much of this increased interest is as a result of the policies of the leaders, how much is reactionary from press reports and how much is just following a trend. The only real answer will come next week. If the Lib Dems win the election, that would be the biggest vindication of the power of social media as well as the influence of the leaders’ debates.

Speculation aside, one thing we do know is that there has been more noise from more sources surrounding this election than any before it. The Sun may have been the ‘one wot won it’ back in 1992, but will this year be defined by the leaders’ debates, the scandals (if they can be termed as such) and the rise of the social voice?

Could this noise from blogs, social media and online newspapers actually turn voters off? With the amount of negativity flying around and the emotive nature of the subjects being debated, deciding who to vote for might pose a greater challenge than ever before.

What are your opinions on this matter? Is blanket internet coverage energising the electorate or turning them away from politics? Can social media popularity convert into votes? Are old voting habits too strong to break? We always appreciate your feedback, so whatever your views let us know below.

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