Comment: This isn’t a social media election and the next one won’t be either

By Steve Clapperton

Since the start of the general election campaign, media-types and commentators have been quick to brand 2015 the year of the 'social media election', perhaps hoping that the label will be more accurate than when it was applied in 2010. However, as five years ago, they will be wrong.

Recent years have seen more and more media content driven by social media comment and this has extended to politics. But far too many political experts seem to dramatically over-emphasise the impact that social media actually has on election campaigns and voting behaviour.

Take the leaders' debate last week. Pollsters produced a number of post-debate findings which gave different leaders the crown of victor. But experts tracking comment and reaction on social media saw the SNP as the clear winner. Today a number of people have been trying to square the two results, with little success.

The SNP outperforming on social media isn’t new. During the independence referendum last year, research suggested that over 80% of tweets were in support of the Yes campaign, almost double the percentage of the vote that it actually received. This alone shows us the disparity between social media comment and actual voting behaviour. There are two key reasons why.

Firstly, social media isn’t representative of the electorate in the way polls are. Social media users are, for the most part, younger than the UK population as a whole. This alone isn't a problem, but because social media comment is not weighted to be representative in the same way as pollsters present their data, it means that the opinions of young people are dramatically over-stated. On the whole, younger audiences tend to be more left-wing than older generations, and the results of social media 'polls' reflect that.

Secondly, younger people are much less likely to vote than older generations. Again, polling data is often weighted to try and take into account whether people will actually make it to the ballot box, but social media data instead focuses on those who use their voice their, rather than whether a person will actually use their vote to try to make a difference. Social media findings are disproportionately made up of the views of younger voters who often don't vote, neglecting the opinions and attitudes of the older voters who might not use social media but will doubtlessly be at their polling station on election day.

Only a third of the UK population are reported to use social media and it seems bizarre that many media types are neglecting the other two-thirds just because they choose to communicate in different ways. Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon isolated to the media, with political parties at the very least talking about the social media campaign. Once again, this is misguided.

Anyone who engages with political opinion on Twitter will know that it serves as an echo-chamber. Left-wing activists engage with one another, with the same happening on the right, and there is actually little debate that would be likely to shift the views of swing voters. Of course, non-political obsessives and their friends – the normal people outside of the Westminster bubble – rarely even engage with politics via social media anyway, meaning that the hashtags, gifs and memes doing the rounds have even less value in trying to influence voting intention.

In fairness to political commentators, it isn’t only in politics that this over-prioritisation of Twitter manifests itself. The day after the Super Bowl, the BBC's website gave higher priority to an article explaining who 'won' the social media Super Bowl than the actual result of the game. One can only imagine what Bill Belichick, head coach of the victorious Patriots for the fourth time and famous for his disregard for 'MyFace', would say.

That isn't to say that social media doesn't have a place in the election campaign – of course it does. But because it is new and shiny, the attention given to social media usage is massively disproportionate when compared to the importance of messaging, leaflets, posters, TV adverts and, of course, the ground war, which is where the election will be won and lost. Personal connections and conversations have much more impact than those carried out electronically. Activists talking to voters influence elections in a way that, at present, social media simply does not.

Younger voters who want a fair deal should continue using Twitter and Facebook to engage with their political friends and allies. But if they want to make a real impact and make sure their voice is heard, they should put their phone down for a few minutes and tell their family and friends what they think matters. And then they should go vote themselves.

As for those dubbing it the 'social media election', only time will tell. But I suspect the link between engagement on social media and voting will remain as loose as previous elections have shown, and many will acknowledge that social media is a part of the whole communications package, rather than an end in itself. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won't be told that we're watching the first 'social media election' in 2020….

Steve spent the 2010 general election managing a campaign in a key marginal before going on to work for an MP. He now manages campaigns and political engagement for a UK charity. He writes about politics and parliament in a personal capacity.

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