A renaissance in democracy?

Lily Blake

Social media has the potential to resuscitate the democratic process. During the 1990s, voter turn out and engagement declined rapidly amongst young people. Political party membership has also decreased across Europe and in the UK. Fewer people are participating and engaging with politics. The mandate to govern is supposed to be derived from the electorate’s support. If the electorate aren’t participating in politics, on what grounds can we preserve legitimacy?

Social media’s role in rectifying this problem has already begun. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign and Sadiq Khan’s campaign for London mayor were both supported throughout by enthusiasm on social media. The hashtags #JezWeCan and #YesWeKhan both conveyed positive messages of efficacy, which cut through press negativity. These two strikingly similar campaigns demonstrate the influence social media has had upon recent elections.

The emergence of social media is of profound significance. It is by far the most widely consumed form of alternative media to have existed. In the UK, 24 million people log onto Facebook daily. Indeed, social media is now even more heavily consumed than dominant forms of media. This is unprecedented. Social media is intrinsically important due to the sheer scale on which it operates.

It is vital to adopt a perspective of social media as another area of public life, rather than simply as a form of recreation and distraction. Tweeting in support of a certain politician is the same as putting a poster up in your front window. Signing an online petition is the same as contacting your local MP. As such, social media’s role in politics may be compared to the role of other forms of media.

Acting as a form of alternative media, social media is akin to a conversation in which anybody can partake. The purpose of alternative media is to challenge the implicit values and assumptions of mainstream output. Anybody can contribute to discussions on social media, and topics of interest are set by the community.

Activism on social media exposed the racism which underpinned Zac Goldsmith’s campaign against Sadiq Khan. Londoners who had been targeted with campaigns based on crude racial profiling shared their stories on twitter to a mass audience. This prompted Owen Jones’ YouTube video exposing this racial profiling, which reached over 120,000 people. It is likely that this reaction to Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was even more wide-reaching than the data suggests. A 2012 study in Nature found that exposure to political campaigns on social media produced a domino effect.

Social media is a far reaching and important form of alternative media, but what does this mean for democracy?

Challenging dominant discourse is vital to the ideal of deliberative democracy. Proponents of deliberative democracy argue that a truly democratic society is based on active discussion and debate, not just voting every five years. A YouGov survey found that 57 per cent of those who backed Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election used social media as their main news source. This proportion of the electorate are substantially more informed and interested in engaging with politics as a consequence of social media. Further, those who campaigned on social media in support of Sadiq Khan were vital in critiquing the dominant discourse propagated by election campaigners.

The key challenge for advocates of social media and politics is the concern that social media is an ‘echo chamber’ – a group of people who all agree with one another merely reinforcing their own beliefs. Whilst campaigns against Zac Goldsmith were far reaching, it might be the case that they only reached those demographics who were going to vote for Sadiq Khan anyway.

The Pew Research Center (2014) has found that in conversations about politics two polarised crowds form. These crowds don’t interact with one another and, as such, people are only exposed to arguments that they already agree with. True deliberation in politics requires exposure to new ideas.

Perhaps campaigns are already beginning to reach people outside the traditional polarised crowds. The #JezWeCan campaign contributed to Labour party activists  mobilising a new audience, with 160,000 people applying to join the Labour party.

The hashtags which followed Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan to victory represent the embryonic stage of a renaissance in democracy. Social media is being used to mobilise. To truly restore the UK’s democratic process, social media campaigns need to  encourage users to make evaluative judgements by discussing issues with those who do not already share their beliefs.

Image: Jason Howie

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