Evaluating the Role of Social Media

What did voters make of it all? At the height of the campaign, Ipsos MORI asked members of the BBC’s 2000-strong Election Uncut community for their views on the role of social media in the election (see Chap. 19 for more details). The discussion identified four different groups of attitudes among voters: “active supporters”, those “disappointed by the evidence”, “passive supporters”, and “opponents in principle”. The active supporters

of social media in political debate had had positive experiences of using social media during the campaign. They enjoyed the speed at which news could be shared and believed that social media content was subject to less bias and more honesty than the spin portrayed in traditional media. However, while it appeared to benefit some voters, others were disappointed by the evidence they had seen on social media. These voters were concerned that conversation on social media was being dominated by a few loud voices, and that the tendency towards humorous content made it difficult to sustain serious debate:

Active supporter: “I have seen posts from friends and colleagues from all sides of the political spectrum where there has been lively ‘debate’ and where video links have been posted to back up the discussions. It has been quite informative.”

Disappointed by the evidence: “I think it dumbs down the debate when it becomes so casual. It’s very normal for politicians to be slated, our country to be complained about etc. ... and social media really provides the fuel for this to happen.”

Those who had little or no direct experience of social media for political debate often fell into two camps. Passive supporters believed that social media was the future and a key to giving a voice to voters who might not otherwise share their opinions. In contrast, others were opponents in principle, and believed that political debate through social media will always be fundamentally unrepresentative, unhelpful and inappropriate.

Passive supporter: “Many would not stand up in a public meeting to air a point of view, but would be able to do it via social media.”

Opponents in principle: “Social media is full of egotistical, self-seeking people who bend their party line to meet their followers/friends. It is not a true representation of what people think. It is extremely superficial.” Engagement with the 2015 General Election on social media did not necessarily translate to impact offline. Of those social media users who had undertaken activity related to the General Election by 23 April 2015, around a quarter (27%) reported that their social media conversations had led them to do further research on an issue or topic related to politics. However, 9% said it has led them to change their mind on an issue, and only 6% reported it had led them to join a political party or movement— proportionally small numbers, but still significant given the overall number of people who used social media to engage in politics.

 
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