יום שני, 17 ביולי 2017

The Youth Vote, Social Media & Its Potential For UKIP

The recent UK Council and EU parliamentary elections on May 22nd have raised many interesting questions around voting behaviour as well as the discourse used in conveying political messages and opinions.

As an avid user of Twitter (and other social media) what was starkly apparent was the glut of misinformation, party propaganda and outright lies by many party figures, supporters, those jumping on friends’ bandwagons, or individuals just generally with an axe to grind.

Almost in its entirety it was aimed at one party in particular — The UK Independence Party (UKIP). There is no doubt that the party suffered some pretty difficult headlines over the 4 weeks leading up to the elections with allegations of racism, homophobia, xenophobia and sexism — inferring that these were institutionalised and shaped is policies.

These labels were also falsely peddled by the mainstream national media and repeated on various social networking sites. However, there were many more that were initially bred and developed on social media itself — most notably (but not all) by younger users of social media. My estimation was that of a sample of posts I saw, around 80% of the tweets, retweets and favourites that were negative towards UKIP came from 17-21 year olds (a crude estimation based on ages written on profiles, comments referring to age and visual assumptions based on pictures of users).

This election also threw up the increasingly difficult problem of managing political campaigns effectively on social media, especially when using ‘manufactured’ hashtags to encourage debate and support. This was quite evident in the hijacking of the ‘#WhyImVotingUKIP’ which resulted in 250,000 tweets at its peak and was trending in many places. This is a political party’s dream if it’s used in the way they intended, but when it’s used to sarcastically suggest all manner of reasons why not to vote for a particular party the results can be devastating.

Thankfully for UKIP this didn’t seem to deter enough voters as the party broadly delivered the ‘political earthquake’ its leader Nigel Farage said it would by picking up Council and MEP seats across the country.

What can’t be gathered as easily however is the volume of those that the misinformation in the ‘traditional media’ and on social media did deter from supporting UKIP.

As a good chunk of these tweets were seemingly spread by the 17-21 year old group this fueled some thinking on my part about the importance of the youth vote, social media and how it affects any political party — but especially a newly emerging party (in terms of efficacy) like UKIP. Several of these tweets that were then also played out in the traditional media could potentially have influenced older voters outside of the youth bracket stated above.

Needless to say, it is essential that a political party owns its ‘message’, has a coherent strategy of deployment and a crisis management approach for viral online misinformation and misuse of party hashtags — and more generally across social media as a whole.

Some of the comments made in social media stemmed from the outright nonsense that ‘UKIP have policies that don’t want women to work’ and ‘make it OK for a husband to rape their wife’, ‘want to deport all non-white British people’ to the less outrageous (but still potentially damaging) ‘UKIP want to charge you to see Doctors and use the NHS’, ‘they are going to tax everyone 35%’ or ‘are going to cut police numbers’. Some of these statements untrue claims were then knowingly used by senior opposition politicians in the other political parties (the Labour Party in particular for whatever intention — honourable or otherwise).

What was striking was that none of the tweets that I examined where the sender was then challenged on their viewpoint offered any indication that they had consulted official party literature — either manifesto or website. In a ‘just one extra vote more wins’ environment like a parliamentary seat in the General Election in 2015, that misinformation could destroy a party’s credibility and chances of achieving that marginal seat win in one foul Twitter viral rampage.

Most of the ‘more established’ parties (and I won’t use ‘main’ as clearly UKIP now falls into that grouping too as a result of its recent performance) have a social media strategy and it can be somewhat daunting for a less ‘cash rich’ and newly emerging ‘front-runner’ party like UKIP to justify the spend at the expense of something else like billboard advertising or leaflet-dropping, but invest it should — nay must. As a point of note, The European Parliamentary Research Service in a briefing given on 21/03/14 estimates that 5-10% of the 2012 US Presidential election campaigns for each of the candidates was allocated to social media campaigns/strategy.

UKIP refreshingly is still a relatively ‘blank political canvas’ and has the most exciting opportunity for over 100 years to re-invent politics, spark creative policy development and generate enthusiasm for the political process — especially amongst the young who it needs to inform as well as win hearts and minds. Its current momentum, vibrancy and character are what it can use to appeal to the youth vote — voters that if it captures now, could possibly be with them for a generation.

A recent Ipsos Mori survey on ‘Likelihood of Voting’ (May 2014) compared those that said they ‘would absolutely be voting’ in May 2010 (76%) with those that said they ‘would absolutely be voting’ in May 2014 and the difference was a staggering -17% with just 59% responding that they intended to vote in 2014.

In considering apathy more generally, this may help us understand and assess the difficulties in engaging our younger members of society in the political process.

An Electoral Commission report in July 2002 showed that just 39% of 18-24 year olds bothered to cast a vote in the elections of that year. The main reasons centred on ‘alienation in politics — politics is not for young people’ and ‘none registration’ as a significant barrier.

Fast forward 10 years and the situation is still as ‘participation-barren’, and indeed a problem that persists not just in the UK but across the EU too. In a European Youth report ‘Participation in Democratic Life’ published in May 2013 — 44% of 18-24 year olds stated that ‘they did not vote’ in any elections during the previous 3 years. In the case of the UK, the % that stated they hadn’t voted in any election during this time increased 16% to 62% between April 2011 and April 2013. Indeed, this is a particularly interesting report that breaks down respondents’ reasons for voting/not voting as well as various socio-economic demographical differences. I would encourage anyone who really wants a more granular level assessment to read it.

To expand on the points made about social media at the start of this piece, 62% of Europeans use social networks each day (European Parliamentary Service 21/03/14) with the figure being much higher in the UK itself. Given that many users use social media for news, information and opinion forming, it is an ideal platform on which to engage, influence and gain support from voters — this in increasingly apparent amongst the youth vote either yet to be engaged or already engaged but possibly misinformed.

UKIP is in an enviable position over the next 12 months (and in particular while it develops its manifesto for the General Election in 2015) to capitalise on this opportunity by shaping and influencing the political agenda and discourse amongst this demographic. An additional benefit of which could be a wider PR gain in influencing the traditional media and securing support across other demographics.

There is no doubt that UKIP’s charismatic leader Nigel Farage, UKIP’s ‘buzz’, ‘excitement’ and ‘avenues for change’ that it could offer would undoubtedly appeal to younger voters and in doing so secure voting support for a greater longevity.

The young are many things — often rebellious if I remember my own youth! Farage’s party is the ideal medium through which to vent that sentiment within the structure of the democratic process as they ‘stick two fingers up’ to the establishment, question why things are as they are and what needs to be changed — learning more from facts and active involvement in politics, as opposed to being disenfranchised, disillusioned and misguided because of a few spurious retweets.

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