Posted 8th May 2015 | By Ean Faragher, Operations Director

With the recent election being dubbed the UK's first 'social media election' (which is funny, because I'm pretty sure the 2010 election was also the first social media election) I thought it would be interesting to investigate the role that technology and the web has had or could have on democracy as a whole.

It's no secret that social media has caused an increased interactivity between politicians and the electorate – even at a non-political level with the rise of hashtags like #Milifandom or #Cameronettes. We also saw how the general public are now able to frame the story and add their own narrative with things like the WhyImVotingUKIP hashtag, started with every good intention by UKIP's branch in Harrogate, being hijacked and turned into a humorous dig at the UKIP policies (highlight: #WhyImVotingUkip Because I hear Pole dancers are undercutting our home-grown British dancers. Disgusting!) which was then reported in the mainstream media.

For all the talk of this social media election it's clear that Twitter, Facebook et al have a long way to go to challenge the status quo. Whilst 7 million people viewed the initial leaders' debate (just under a 3rd of total TV audience) only 1.5m twitter users tweeting about it. To highlight this even further, 4.3 million people watched the challengers debate which was beaten in the ratings by Emmerdale!

With that being the case was this really a social media election? The fact that nearly 3 quarters of 18-24 year olds were registered to vote shows something had that impact – if all of them voted (and I can't find the demographics breakdown for the end result yet) it would be the largest youth vote turnout since 1964. With 64% of 18-24 year olds using Twitter it stands to reason that social media can claim a reasonable proportion of that increase in youth voters.

Whilst leader debates are very new the method of getting political insight and opinion from the television and other mainstream media has been around for a long time and has been the de-facto method for anyone outside of the 18-24 age group for a long time. Twitter is only 10 years old so as a method for political discourse, only those under 28 will have had it as a platform all of their voting lives. Comparing the figures for TV 7 million watched out of a potential audience of 48m adults, 14.5% of potential voters engaged through TV. There are 6.8 million 18-24 year olds in the UK, 64% of the total users to tweet is 960k, 14.1% of total 18-24 year olds engaged through Twitter.

With those statistics you can understand why this election has seen a focus on social media, it's challenging the mainstream media for influence in an important demographic.

One key area that 18-24 year old group are requesting is online voting. The commonly held belief is that it would be simply too hard to implement with current technology for a nation the size of the UK. Estonia is currently the only country in the world that allows any voter to vote online, with 25% of voters making use of it. They use it because of their small population (1.3m) but even so security experts have recommended their system be immediately discontinued due to a variety of flaws.

Despite that the Speaker's Commision on Digital Democracy recently recommended that online voting should be in place by 2020 – something of a stretch goal given that no nation in the world is successfully doing it (at least not without ignoring critical vulnerabilities in the process). Whilst it may increase voter turnout by 9 million are we really ready to take voting away from official eyes and allow it to be hacked – even the most secure online system for voting is still susceptible to stolen laptops or even physical force against the voter. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is one person who has raised concerns about potential coercion of voters if we remove voting from public view. 

Perhaps online voting for a general election isn't the key – Pia Mancini is the founder of the Net Party in Argentina and also the creator of Democracy OS, an open source system that promises to change modern democracy by putting it online. The Net Party are campaigning to get an elected congressperson into the Buenos Aires local parliament who will then use Democracy OS to allow their constituents to vote on all issues (with the congressperson following the outcome and voting the same way in parliament).

Mancini's campaign is to use technology to allow more interaction between the general populace and their elected representative. Whilst the 2020 online voting may be a pipe dream it's entirely feasible that, in a political environment that is seeing major changes every election, by 2020 we could see a new party in the UK offering a direct chance to engage with politicians and genuinely influence the outcome of parliamentary debates with technology at its core. As Mancini pointed out in her TED talk last year 'We are 21st-century citizens, doing our very, very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on an information technology of the 15th century' - it's time for that to change!

Written by Ean Faragher, Operations Manager at ExtraMile Communications

At ExtraMile we try to take an hour out each week to look around us at what others do and to gain inspiration and to admire people's creativity. Each post in this series is one staff member's take on the world of web, design and things online. We hope you enjoy it.

Image courtesy of Ji-Ho Park.

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