UK Election 2015: Is social media driving youth engagement in politics?

February 26, 2015

Young voters and those below voting age have shown an increasing interest in the UK General Election this year, and social media has played a major part in amplifying their engagement. Anecdotally, in the the run-up to the election we saw young people posting selfies when they ran into their local political candidates. There was an explosion in sharing of politically-themed across social media.

Interest in the political process among young people is rising: for example 89 per cent of 16 – and 17-year-olds registered to vote in the Scottish referendum last September. While the conversation around whether to lower the voting age continues, this year’s election turnout amongst the young people speaks volumes about how much they value their votes.

Sky News reports that the number of 18 to 25-year-olds who cast their ballots was 58% this year, up from 52% in 2010 and 38% in 2005. The Guardian,meanwhile, has illustrated the significant impact of their vote. There were 35 seats in England and Wales where at least 20% of the voting age population was between 18 and 24.

Polls show that young people are more likely to back the Labour Party and Greens. Whilst the Conservatives came out triumphant in this Election, the other parties may eventually benefit from the effort they made this time to court younger votes. Ed Miliband was the leader of the pack in the social media stakes with the infamous #Milifandom.

17-year-old student, Abby Tomlinson, set the hashtag trending following what she felt was a smear campaign run by media hostile to the Labour leader. She felt that through his campaign, Miliband was ‘inviting young people to have a voice in politics’. The very reference to the hashtag and Twitter in Miliband’s resignation speech showed the value of the campaign to him, and the importance of the ‘youth voice’.

David Cameron’s campaign also exhibited effective tactics in engaging with the young. The Conservatives’ YouTube page demonstrates a move away from traditional Party Political Broadcasts that have been rather sober in tone. Their adverts caught the eye of social media users: viewing figures in the hundreds of thousands speak for themselves. The Tories believed their social media team could be one of their secret weapons this election, and perhaps – given the result – they were right.

More structured campaign tactics also contributed to younger people’s engagement. Sky News launched Stand Up Be Counted (SUBC), a place for under-25s to debate the issues that matter most to them. Over 50,000 young people joined the campaign through social media and a dedicated website. The issues they spoke about ranged from tuition fees and mental health to youth unemployment and the NHS. #AskTheLeaders, a series of question and answer sessions broadcast live from Facebook’s London office was also popular as it gave first-time voters unprecedented access to the party leaders.

Unsurprisingly, social media interaction hasn’t stopped after the election. The number of MPs on Twitter has reached a new high, with 96% of newly elected MPs having accounts. Every one of the SNP’s 56 MPs are on Twitter.

As the next generation of young voters comes up, it will be fascinating to see how the political parties’ use of social media evolves (as social media itself evolves). All the signs are that with every passing year, mastery of digital communications will become more important in public life.