The internet, social media, and the general election

Could social media be influencing your election choice? (Photographer: Jason Howle)

By Tanya Harrington and Hannah Woodward

With party broadcasts livestreamed directly through Facebook, manifesto pledges broken up into manageable tweet-sized chunks, and the rise of “tactical voting” spreadsheets or online quizzes to help identify which party you agree with most, it can be safely said that social media is becoming a valuable tool for public political discourse. (As well as sharing photos of Theresa May trying to eat chips).

However, it seems that many of us are still striving to better understand the often invisible impact the internet has on our political choices. With Facebook in particular deemed as “a key electoral battleground” this year (The Guardian 2017), and with evidence that Labour is forgoing “traditional” media to focus more on online campaigning, this question is becoming more important than ever.

Some data now suggests that social media has become a larger source of information to the public than campaign literature (such as leaflets or posters), or even local newspapers. 14% of voters in one survey claim to get the majority of their information online (GE2017 Telephone VI Poll III). In one sense, this can be very positive, allowing engagement and debate on the topic that might not have otherwise taken place. However, this online culture can also lead to misinformation, bullying, or an “echo chamber” effect, in which social media users are surrounded only by information which appeals to them. The latter is often referred to as a “filter bubble,” by researchers, wherein confidential algorithms decide what online content to show you based on what it estimates you will most likely enjoy. As many as 60% of users may not realise that this affects them (Eslami et al 2015), which may lead to a dangerous inability to consider opposing stances in an election.

Parties have been criticised this year for using online advertisements, or “sponsored” posts, designed to reach a larger audience. Labour has been criticised for sponsoring posts in the past, and the Conservatives have faced scandal over advertisements twice in this election, including one regarding “targeted” advertisements, which only those targeted could see, and which avoided some regulatory bodies for this reason (The Independent 2017). As well as this, the use of “bots,” or automated accounts to spread campaign material is not easily regulated, meaning that some parties could be paying to spread their message further under the guise of popular opinion, thus misinforming the public.

However, some research does show that online misinformation is not actually that widely accessed (Crawford 2017), and there is limited evidence to show that it has a significant impact on election results. Perhaps the best thing we can do as University students during this time is to be wary of information sources, and continue to civilly educate ourselves and others on our opinions, in the hopes of reaching the most democratic outcome.

Whilst the two main political parties have been scrutinised for the use of social media throughout this general election campaign, the smaller parties have used the power of social media to reach out to their opponents and promote their ideas and policies. Leanne Wood, the Party Leader for Plaid Cymru has used social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to personally attack opposition, and promote Plaid Cymru. She personally quoted a tweet on the 1st June of Theresa May speaking about the election debates, noting that “ Are these really the reasons the Prime Minister gave for not showing up tonight? It’s not a joke? Strong & stable leadership, my arse!”

The direct social media use of Plaid Cymru shows that whilst the Conservatives and Labour have invested into the social media campaign which leaves room for fake news, perhaps the smaller parties like Plaid Cymru are taking a more direct approach in dealing with the opposition, and leaving less room for the notion of “fake news”. For the smaller parties as there is less emphasis placed upon their election campaign, their credibility is almost greater as the likelihood of fake news is smaller.

It seems that for the Liberal Democrats that despite their political party broadcasts and election bus campaigns, like Plaid Cymru Twitter is at the forefront of their more aggressive campaign tone, with Tim Farron also tweeting Theresa May “ @Theresa_may called this election, and now won’t even turn up to debate the issues. Come and defend your record. #Whereistheresa. Twitter seems to have politics at a more intimate level compared to Facebook, which perhaps is why Twitter is used to personally attack opponents through the election campaign.

Smaller parties like UKIP and the Green Party have support but arguably less media coverage than other parties; particularly here in Wales. To the extent that the Green Party accused the BBC of breaching impartiality guidelines by giving “disproportionate coverage” to UKIP, throughout election campaigns. With UKIP being at the forefront of the reasoning behind Brexit it is no wonder, their media coverage is greater than Greens.

Whilst political coverage differs from party to party, social media plays a vital role within the election campaign. In order to find out what policies each party are enforcing, it is best to research their manifestos in order to get the truth about each manifesto.

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