Could a digitally empowered civil society reconnect Europeans with democracy?

Could a digitally empowered civil society reconnect Europeans with democracy?

If electoral turnout is considered to be one of the most important indicators of democratic health, then we should be worried. Our democracy today is being undermined by low turnout, fuelled by a narrative of disillusionment against the political class. Where voting was considered a civic responsibility, today parts of society see government as a supply mechanism, forgetting that we must contribute for the machine to function.

As a ‘digital native’ working closely with the public affairs boys at Keene, I wonder if social media may provide a means to engage citizens who feel estranged from the political system to vote again. Can social media boost voter engagement?

So under the awesome gaze of The Shard, I attended a packed event at Demos for the launch of their new report ‘Like, Share, Vote’, to find answers to this question.

The speakers were:

  • Richard Angell, Deputy Director, Progress
  • Elizabeth Linder, EMEA Politics & Government Specialist, Facebook
  • Fran O’Leary, Director, Lodestone and author of ‘Why don’t you vote?
  • Michael Sani, Managing Director, Bite The Ballot
  • Ryan Shorthouse,Director, Bright Blue

The discussion was chaired by Jonathan Birdwell, Head of the Citizenship programme at Demos and co-author of the report.

The Demos report begins by stating four key principles for civil society organisations to follow, so that they may develop an effective social media programme for voter mobilisation.

They are:

  • You must listen to online conversations to understand you audience
  • Use quizzes and interactive approaches to increase engagement
  • Micro-target specific groups using social media advertising
  • Coordinate online campaigns with offline voter mobilization events

Fran O’Leary kicked off the panel discussion by sharing the results of her research behind ‘Why don’t you vote?’ Society, especially younger generations, struggle to see how their vote will make a difference. Many would rather see our current politicians replaced by public figures such as Richard Branson, Stephen Fry, even Mother Teresa! Her research revealed that 80% of young people would vote if they could do it online.

Elizabeth Linder started working at Facebook 6 years ago and began by recollecting a story of the first politician to use the social network to engage with young voters; the former Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Whilst many believe Facebook is just a place for friends and family, Elizabeth noted that last year discussions about elections were the second most popular conversation globally. Political leaders can use Facebook to break news, to discuss (note ‘discuss’ rather than ‘broadcast’, online is conversation) topics not relevant for newspaper editorial and to gauge public opinion.

Michael Sani went into detail about how Bite the Ballot is working with organisations such as 38 Degrees and the NUS to get young people engaged with politics. The beauty of social media is that it provokes opinion that is usually political. At Bite the Ballot they have an ethos of delayed gratification, political decisions are made eventually, but not at the same speed as social media. Just imagine if the civil rights movement or suffragettes had the power of social media.

Richard from Progress said that the public sector should be inspired by how the private sector is using social media. Is social media changing elections? Not as much as people may think, television still draws millions whilst Twitter may have a few thousand tweeting. However, we do still need to be aware of hot topics being discussed online, such as strong anti-EU voices.

Ryan from Bright Blue (providing political balance next to Progress!), discussed how the Conservatives are using social media to engage young voters and how Facebook has been integral for this. Social media is full of virtual communities, providing an opportunity for organisations to engage with specific issues. Advocating that people need to realise voting is a civic responsibility, the government is not just a supply mechanism, and that parliament has never been more diverse.

At Keene we see social media has an invaluable way to identify relevant influencers, understand different sides of an argument, and engage with decision makers on client relevant topics. We agree with the Demos report that social media is not an end, but a means to an end. It must be mixed with offline approaches too.

This blog post only provides an overview of discussions, so please do download a copy of Demos’ new report ‘Like, Share, Vote’.


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