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2015: the social media election – but not the one we’d imagined

During the extensive election build-up, 2015 was dubbed the year of the ‘social media election’. And although there’s no doubt that Facebook, Instagram and especially Twitter were instrumental vehicles for MPs throughout their campaigns, the real social media election happened during and after the votes were counted – when we, the general public, took to our accounts to share our views.

Firstly, though: the parties. With public appearances generally considered a risky manoeuvre after numerous embarrassing and uncomfortable encounters over the years, MPs and party leaders were reluctant to hit the streets. So to get an insight into leaders, policies and philosophies, the public turned to social channels. Although the parties and individual MPs frequently took to social media, they rarely went beyond repeating sections of their manifestoes, occasionally slating their rivals and urging people to vote come polling day. Apart from the fact that more of us regularly use social channels than we did five years ago – Instagram only kicked off in October 2010, for example – what actually made this election any different from the last one? Here are three small, and fairly insignificant, ways:

Paid media: As political adverts are banned on TV and radio in the UK, social media platforms are the perfect places to broadcast policies and convey a little party personality. Yet with a young electorate that’s highly engaged on social media but not so much with politics, coupled with the seriously low figures for organic reach on Facebook, parties plumped for paid-for posts.

Selfies: The phenomenon that’s swept the globe over the last couple of years took the electoral campaign by storm, too. Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage and Sturgeon – they were all at it. Good to be meeting the electorate, we guess, although some of the snaps were less than flattering.

Shareable content: There was huge potential for the parties to make really innovative content à la Obama, but it was sorely lacking. The closest we came? Well, the Green Party’s ‘Change The Tune’ mock boyband video has garnered nearly 900,000 views to date and Ed Miliband’s Russell Brand interview has had over 1.3 million views – but these were random peaks and not representative of the wider campaigns. And during an election that was underlined by a sense of confusion about what the parties stood for and distrust of their leaders, the opportunity was ripe to create engaging, tailored content to audiences of specific channels. Why stick to negative, rival-bashing banners on Twitter? Why not do a Barack and take to Reddit to conduct an ‘ask me anything’ session? Why not use Instagram videos to show life on the campaign bus? How about a Facebook game that helps you decide how to vote and share your result? The options were vast and the output limited.

On the day

On polling day, parties were understandably doing one thing: urging people to vote, share their choice and tell their friends and followers to do the same thing. And this is where the tables turned: it was suddenly much less about parties broadcasting and voters absorbing, and much more about voters updating their friends on where and how they’d voted, galvanising them to follow suit and sharing their reactions as the results unfolded. As the day wore on, more and more of us posted updates about the fact that we’d voted and how – and the sense of pride, camaraderie and collective excitement was palpable. For the general public, it had got personal.

Public reaction

The 2015 election had the highest turnout since 1997, with 66.1 percent of the electorate showing up to vote. And perhaps because of the prevalence of social media advertising from the parties, votes from those aged between 16 and 24 were up six percent on the last election. Numbers are still low, with less than 6 out of 10 people within the age bracket voting, but perhaps the ‘apathetic generation’ label isn’t as accurate as it once was.

And so, as the exit polls were totted up and seats lost and won, the public’s attention was firmly fixed on the ongoing revelations. For me and my friends, our News Feeds were rammed with confusion, indignation, disbelief, and, of course, occasional apathy or delight – and they remained that way for days. Regardless of how you and your friends voted, the message was out there loud and clear: the election had gripped us all. And not as a passing interest, either  – these were deeply emotional reactions to a changing country: urgent calls to protest and rebel, heartbreaking declarations of disappointment, or triumphant celebrations of a surprise success.

The next election

The main question is: will we be able to vote online in the 2020 election? It’s highly unlikely, given the potential outcry, technical glitches and lack of time for foolproof testing. Had Ed Miliband won the keys to 10 Downing Street, Labour would have trialled it, and the figures imply that this would have significantly improved turnout among younger voters.

And what about the use of our data? According to social media writer Mark Schaefer, online data will have increased by 600 percent come 2020, which means that targeting can get a whole lot more accurate – granular, even. That should mean that disenchanted, apathetic or undecided voters can be more easily targeted and swayed by political posting on social channels.
So what do you think? What could the parties have done better in this election, how did social media affect how you voted and what’s likely to happen in 2020? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook.