Reaching to the Converted: Turning Young Peoples Social Media Engagement into Democratic Participation

Demsoc’s Kelly McBride (@Kelly_McB) takes a look at the development of digital and social media initiatives to encourage young people to get registered and voting in the 2015 General Election.

The 2010 General Election was heralded as the first of the social media age and arrived with an accompanying buzz about how it would change political engagement in the 21st century, especially among young voters. However, it wasn’t quite the revolution that some may have hoped. Despite a respectable level of engagement, the turnout for 18-24 year olds at the General Election was 44% – the lowest of any age category.

Fast-forward to 2015 and it seems like politics has upped its hashtag game. With latest figures from the Office of National Statistics showing that young people “lead the way across all categories of internet use”, organisations and some politicians are heeding the data and going digital. A recent report by cross-party think tank Demos concluded that the youth vote could swing the 2015 general election, so it’s clear that digital engagement is worth the effort.

In the run-up to an uncertain General Election, and faced with the biggest changes to voter registration in a generation, both the political and non-partisan are out to get young people ‘engaged’ and voting, and young people themselves are increasingly debating, creating and sharing political content through social media.

Some recent UK digital and social media based voter initiatives

Bite the Ballot’s National Voter Registration Day achieved 166,000 sign-ups in a single day (plus a grand total of over 500,000), and they gave young people the opportunity to question political leaders through #LeadersLive. They have also taken the time to assess the manifestos of some political parties to see what they are offering to young voters, and produced Verto, one of many new Voter Advice applications to spring up this year.

The British Youth Council adopted voter registration as a priority campaign, whilst asking parties to introduce online Youth Manifestos, and encouraging young people – including under 18’s – to voice their opinions with ‘Make Your Mark‘ and the ‘League of Young Voters‘.

Facebook have worked with Sky News to host an interactive #AskTheLeaders debate, and teamed up with the Electoral Commission to prompt all UK users to register to vote – moves primarily aimed at young voters.

Youth volunteering charity vInspired are utilising YouTube and Tumblr with the ‘Swing The Vote‘ campaign; and the National Union of Students’ are pushing #GenerationVote.

On 28th April, Channel 4’s digital service teamed up with alternative youth news network Shout Out UK to stream Britain’s first ever debate between youth leaders, with representatives from 7 political parties. A concurrent conversation took place on Twitter (#‎YouthLeaders). The organisers of the debate expressed frustration about the lack of young voices in British politics and a concern for voter disengagement.

This is just a snippet of what has happened so far, and some of these initiatives have been positively recognised by Government in their response to voter engagement in the UK. The Government itself has even produced some interactive resources to use in schools under their election-focussed Rock Enrol! initiative, although the uptake and impact has yet to be concluded.

Is this enough to encourage widespread youth democratic participation?

In any discussion of digital engagement, it would be remiss not to consider the potential for exclusion. The ‘second-level digital divide‘ recognises that digital engagement benefits those who possess good internet skills and use the internet for political purposes, and excludes those who do not. We have yet to discern the impact of digital and social media efforts translating into voter turnout or sustained political engagement, but whatever the conclusions post-election we should bear in mind what the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said in an article last year:

The most brilliant apps for democratic participation could be built but […] getting people to use them and […] use them well, is a political and social challenge rather than a technological challenge.”

Whilst some of the initiatives already mentioned have developed alongside some on-the-ground action in communities and schools, we must be aware of the complacency in thinking that digital and social media platforms are the key to ensuring an informed, involved and influential young electorate. There is work to be done outside of the digital realm to ensure that any transfer of democratic participation to a digital space happens alongside adequate investment in education, complementary educational policies, discursive communities, and well thought-out political system reform; one which is ideally co-created with the young people it is supposed to work for, and which revitalises interest from the groups who feel the current system is not working for them.

We must also be aware of inflated impressions of political power that we give to people when we encourage political participation solely in an online environment, considering that Government is not compelled to listen to or act on online activity (despite having its own e-petition site). Whilst the internet is a valuable tool in raising consciousness and connecting some communities, we need to think more deeply about how our online activity will develop into tangible democratic action for all communities.

Recent contributions to the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy contain suggestions for getting young people actively involved in democratic practices, and studies like this one in 2010 examining the influence of social media and digital engagement on election outcomes, can provide evidence bases from which to work.

Democracy should not just mean voting in elections, and many of the excellent discussions that have taken place in the run-up to this General Election have set the foundations for an on-going public conversation about making democracy fit for the UK in the 21st century.

This leaves us with some thinking to do. How does the democratic sector work alongside schools, local authorities and youth organisations ‘on the ground’ to reach beyond the ballot box and enable young people to become active participants – and perhaps even co-creators – in a digital democratic future?

We have cause to celebrate the latest digital innovations, but it is integral that we also equip young people with the skills and knowledge to take advantage of them, and continue to encourage the Government to lead its own modern evolution.

Demsoc is interested in gathering information about all UK projects aiming to get young people more informed and involved in political and democratic activities. If you know of any other digital or social media based initiatives not mentioned in this article, please let us know in the comments or email