Carl Miller, Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at think tank Demos has recently said that with anti-politics being the predominant mood across Europe, social media could be the only method by which modern politics can be fixed. Miller describes that even though it may seem to be business as usual in the political world, under the surface mainstream politics is facing a crisis of falling turnout. In fact, only a third of young people have an interest in politics, and only half think it’s their duty to vote. This is based on a downward spiral in overall attitudes towards politics; approximately 80 percent of us do not have any trust in politicians. Last year, Ipsos MORI’s poll showed that politicians are trusted less than estate agents or bankers. Taken in tandem with the rise of social media, can attempts to engage voters on a digital platform save politics?


Social media is now the predominate way in which the internet is used, with 13 minutes of every hour we spend online dedicated to social media. These statistics are not lost on politicians, their parties and pressure groups. Indeed, social media has given rise to a great number of groups outside of the mainstream, such as the English Defence League which has been described as a “Facebook group with a street-based wing”. Outsider groups are attracted to social media due to the non-existent set up costs and ability to reach a large number of people. This means the political battlefield is changing to one where the soapbox is replaced by the keyboard, and support hinges on ‘likes’, hashtags and retweets.


Formal politics has also begun to use social media as a powerful tool for interacting with the public, even if it does not always go to plan. On the 5th March, David Cameron tweeted a picture of himself on the phone. The accompanying text explained how the Prime Minister was speaking to the President of the United States Barack Obama regarding the crisis in Ukraine, reaching the conclusion that Europe and the US: “should stand united in their condemnation of Russia’s actions”. However this PR attempt soon backfired as the picture of Cameron looking suitably serious was swiftly turned into satire by Twitter users. This included celebrities such as Patrick Stewart attempting their best ‘I’m-on-the-phone-to-Obama’ faces into various substitutes for a phone, whilst other users reimagined the conversation the Prime Minister could be having with Mr Obama.


An occupational hazard of being a politician on Twitter is that often what you post will be met, in some degree, with ridicule and abuse. However this is not the first time that Cameron, or his PR team, has failed to grasp hold of the social media game. In July of 2013 he managed to include a spoof account of Secretary of State Ian Duncan Smith in a tweet about benefits. Finally in November the PM had the embarrassing situation of his account auto-following high-class escort agency Carlton’s of London which says it offers the “finest London escorts to gentlemen of distinction”. Downing Street said that “following” did not imply the PM’s endorsement.


That is not to say that social media cannot be used effectively for political means. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was proclaimed the ‘King of Social Networking’ by the Washington Post as his team were the first to fully harness the potential of social media not only to communicate with existing supporters but also branch out to those not yet involved. Whilst Obama’s campaign team did not invent anything new, they built his political brand by not only targeting major websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but also more specific sites such as Glee and BlackPlanet. Besides this, the majority of Obama’s donations came from online donors giving $200 or less.


It used to be that the politician would speak and the citizen would listen, giving a clear top down control structure. Now that we can all join in the debate, the power struggle changes to one where increasingly the public are driving the conversation.


As the countdown to the 2015 UK general election begins, social media looks as if it will have a key position in the campaigns of the major parties. Douglas Alexander, election co-ordinator for the Labour party, has recognised that the Obama 2008 and 2012 campaigns have shown the need for quick responses which: “has only accelerated with the advent of social media”. The Conservative party also looks to be gearing up for an online fight as reports suggest that Obama’s former campaign manager Jim Messina is now working with David Cameron.


So, is social media leading people to be more politically engaged or is it merely encouraging slacktavism? Research by Hoffman et al. in Computers in Social Behaviour has highlighted how online and offline behaviours were perceived as having very different roles. Engaging politically online isn’t seen as a replacement for offline engagement, but more a new platform for communicating with others. In the 2015 election, it will be interesting to see whether the increased use of social media will increase turnout at the ballot box.


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