When I heard this in a BBC interview last week I was surprised and encouraged because, despite all we are told about growing political disengagement and disenchantment, this shows people still want to discuss politics. It will be fascinating to see if and how politicians react to the growth of social networking sites; whether they can rise to the challenge and the opportunities that social media present; or whether social media will simply be a place for people to ridicule and lambast politics and politicians.
First of all, we shouldn’t get too excited. Politics became a hot topic on facebook last year due to the Scottish independence referendum, and historic once-in-a-generation events like that don’t come along too often. That said, Linder seems convinced that the trend will continue, although as promoting Facebook’s political power is her job, she would say that. But it is safe to assume that with a highly unpredictable general election around the corner, there will be plenty to talk about as polling day approaches, especially if the Leaders’ TV debates go ahead.
Facebook’s relevance isn’t all hype. Firstly, the company has, to its credit, collaborated with the Electoral Commission to reach out to its 35 million UK users and prompt them to register to vote –and seeing as an estimated 1 million voters are currently not registered, the government needs all the help it can get. Secondly and more interestingly, there are academic studies which show how online social media activity can translate into real offline behaviour. Research in New Zealand has shown that the number of facebook ‘fans’ a party or politician gets can act as a predictor of electoral success, with every 1000 fans correlating to a 1.4% higher share of the vote in marginal seats. Research in the USA found that people are 57% more likely to persuade someone to vote for them if they are connected on Facebook or other SNS services, and that Facebook users are over 40% more likely to vote. And let’s not forget that in parts of the world where democracy is still something to be fought for, as in the insurrections in Iran or Egypt, Facebook has, along with Youtube, been a key organising tool.
By Essam Sharaf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
For more junior politicians in the UK, whose profile means that they don’t often get on the TV or radio, Facebook can be a positive way to promote themselves. Labour MP Lisa Nandy, speaking to Radio 4, says that she thinks she’s won over previously hostile constituents through posting videos of her activities, especially her speeches made in Parliament, which without Facebook would probably go unnoticed. In this way, social media can make people realise what their representatives are actually doing on their behalf on a day-today basis, and this can go some way towards mitigating apathy and antipathy.
There is an incredible 27 million people in the UK who use Facebook every day. Of course politicians will want to use that exposure: it’s cheap, direct, and can potentially circumvent unfriendly journalists and newspapers. But what will ‘Facebook electioneering’ look like? I’m not sure the parties know yet. Earlier this month Facebook hosted an “Ask The Leaders” Q+A with Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Green party leader Natalie Bennett (Nigel Farage, for once, didn’t appear). However, to me, that seemed like quite a traditional form of engagement. Apart than the fact that questions could be submitted through…er…Facebook, it looked much like any other kind of Q+A session with the usual politicians giving well-worn answers in front of the cameras.
A second form of ‘social media engagement’ is also eerily familiar from the offline world: advertising. It was revealed recently that the Conservatives have been spending about £100,000 a month on Facebook adverts, and look set to spend £1 million on the site by election day. That’s a lot of money in UK terms, but I struggle to see how this is really going to break through to swing-voters. We are all bombarded by so much advertising online that we’ve become accustomed to ignoring it, and seeing a picture of David Cameron face next to a groan-inducingly familiar slogan seems, to me, unlikely to make much of a difference. Politicians are going to have to find new ways to use social media to really cut through.
The weakness of online political ads illustrates a bigger issue with Facebook: the way the site is constructed means that the people who talk to one another are, broadly, like-minded. Within this echo chamber, with people united in support or condemnation for one particular viewpoint, quote, posted article or video link, the scope for changing minds seems limited. In the last year I have only really disagreed politically with ‘friends’ on Facebook once, in a heated discussion over the conflict in Gaza. Result: I got un-friended, which kind of proves my point. We don’t change our beliefs on Facebook, we reinforce them.
A final issue with social media, and for all media these days, is that a permanent paper-trail is left behind. Comments and posts stay there long after they are uttered, and as Michael Fabricant and Emily Thornberry discovered, a stray tweet can mean an abrupt end to a political career. As the Guardian’s James Ball complains, this means aspiring MPs are becoming increasingly dull in their online communication, re-spouting the party line and throwing away their chance to be personal and interesting.
“In some kind of masochism, I actually follow a lot of young political candidates on twitter, and essentially from the age of about twenty-one they are always on message – nothing interesting, nothing spiky – this fear of gaffes turns out a political class of automatons, you have to have never said anything interesting from university to adulthood, and.. good god, you can see why it’s killing politics! it’s so dreary.”
Having followed a few MPs on Twitter and Facebook, I have to agree with him. It really is painfully tame sometimes. Whether that is the fault of netizens’ tendency for faux-outrage, or politicians’ risk-aversion in the statements they make online and elsewhere, something has to change if Facebook and social media are to help rehabilitate politics and not just hand people more bricks to throw at it.