The 2015 UK General Election day arrived in a flurry of online activity. Would this be the the United Kingdom’s first “Social Media Election?” Would Social Media start to rival the more traditional forms of media – television and print – in terms of influence?
Whilst the main political parties were being criticised for their cautious campaigns – viral campaigns and internet memes based on boybands and, the seemingly implausible, #milifandom seemed to take hold. Parties turned to celebrity vloggers to sway us in to voting for them. Wasn’t this important? After all, recent research from Ipsos MORI said that a third of young people thought that Social Media would influence their vote?
But as the results rolled in through the early hours of Friday morning, defying opinion poll predictions and the more left leaning consensus of the “Twitterati’, it turned out that this wasn’t the social media election at all.
People responded on Facebook and Twitter in astonishment and/or dismay at the result. The right-leaning UK press instructed people to stop whingeing about a democratic result – “When you live your life on Twitter and Facebook, and are only friends with like minded people on Twitter and Facebook, you are not living in the real world. You are living in a narcissistic echo chamber. No wonder it has come as such a surprise to so many that not everyone shares the same world view.” This problem with the introspective nature of Social Media was reiterated in on the leftist press, in The Guardian, – “Twitter and Facebook function to reinforce, rather than challenge, opposing views… If you can’t even have a conversation with someone who votes differently to you, how do you begin to imagine you might bring them back to your way of thinking?”
We might not be running political campaigns online (though who know where our projects might go…?) but what can we learn from the fallout of the ‘Social Media election’? Firstly that the number of followers you have does not necessarily translate in to ‘votes’ (hello Russell Brand). Secondly, that we need to be brave enough to not just engage with the people that will agree with us – a support network is a fantastic and necessary thing when promoting your cause online, but is it giving you a realistic response?
We should also learn that it can be counter productive to push negative messages. Darren Lilleker, associate professor in Political Communication, believed that many of the political parties parties used social media in the wrong way, “because they’re pushing more negative messages than positive ones”. People do not respond well to being told they are wrong. We need to try to engage people in a positive way, creating content that interests people and resonates with them, giving them a chance to think about your message or cause. Whether they ultimately agree with it or not. We need to try to start conversations, rather than just trying to seek knee jerk reactions in the form of ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘retweets’. Writer and activist, Betsy Greer recently wrote a fantastic blog about why we should embrace silence on the internet, rather than always seeking a response. Because what we really need to learn from the UK’s first Social Media election, is that the majority are not always the ones making the most noise.