7 days later – Social Media and the UK General Election

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.

Social Media and Health – A Workshop in Blackbird Leys

I’ve been really enjoying working with The Conservation Volunteers on their social media content and was delighted to be invited to prepare and delivery a workshop on beginner’s social media skills, focusing on Facebook and Twitter.

The workshop was part of TCV’s ongoing People’s Health Trust‘s HealthStrong CIC funded project in Blackbird Leys, Oxfordshire. The People’s Health Trust believes in a society without health inequalities. They are working to ensure that where people live does not unfairly reduce the length of their life, or the quality of their health.

But how does using Facebook and Twitter help reduce health inequalities? The UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy (updated December 2014) believes that reducing digital exclusion can help address many wider equality, social, health and well being issues such as isolation. 81% of people, over 55, say being online makes them feel part of modern society and less lonely.

I was asked to deliver a workshop focusing on social media skills for beginners, to help people to start to interact online. It seemed sensible to focus on Facebook and Twitter. These two social media platforms are currently the UK’s most popular – Facebook is predominately used for informal contact between family and friends and Twitter is great for following news as it breaks, live events and having real-time conversations.

The most interesting thing I gained from this first workshop was talking to the participants about why they wanted to use social media and what concerned them about using it. Most people wanted keep in contact with people, but they also really wanted to use social media more effectively for promoting local causes or businesses. However, nearly all the participants were very concerned about online privacy and this was the main reason why they didn’t use social media as much as they wanted to.

The first workshop took place in the well appointed computer room in the Blackbird Leys Community Centre, which meant the workshop format could alternate between PowerPoint presentation (participants were invited to ask questions at any time) and letting people put what they had just learned in to practice.

The content of the course was written to all have relevant local content  and I thought it was particularly important to signpost participants to where they could find more help getting online in their local area.

I certainly learned a lot from writing the workshop material and enjoyed my first experience of running a training course of this kinds. I hope the participants felt the same.

The content I am helping write for The Conservation Volunteers can be found on their Berkshire Facebook page and on their Berkshire Twitter account. A version of this blog post was originally published on rachstevens.com.