The exponential rise of social media is undeniable. Year on year, average use continues to increase. It is estimated that the average global user spends 118 minutes on social media every day and has five accounts on various sites. However, young people are estimated to spend as much as four hours a day browsing sites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
The birth of social media brought about a new age of communication and media. It provided platforms for friends and family from all over the world to engage instantly without incurring costly international phone calls or waiting for email replies. In the political realm, it further allowed political representatives to engage with the public and for the public to respond back. Facebook in particular, has played a significant role in allowing everyday citizens to have a political voice. The question is, to what extent can social media sites like Facebook actually help political engagement?
In the UK, falling levels of political engagement have been evident since the 1960s. Voter turnout in General Elections are a very important way of gauging political engagement. Looking at statistics of voter turnout at general elections over the past decades has even led some academics to deem the UK in a type of political crisis. Since the 1960s, we have witnessed a steady decline in turnout on election day, with the occasional variation in 1974 and 1992. In 2001, the voter turnout was the lowest ever recorded statistic since the creation of universal voting, with just over 59%. As a result of this ‘crisis’, many have suggested that social networking sites have the influence to re-engage people, particularly young people with politics and get people voting again.
Movements such as Black Lives Matter have had an unquestionable online presence and events such as Brexit and the current US Elections have encouraged more people to take to social networking sites such as Facebook to share their views and thoughts. A recent study found that 41% of young people aged 15-25 had engaged in some kind of political discussion or activity online, whether this be sharing a video of a debate on Facebook or tweeting an opinion. These individuals are also more likely to vote. Furthermore, Ipsos Mori found that social media has a significant impact on 18-24 year olds, with more than 1/3 of the group stating that content on social media had influenced their voting choices. The incorporation of social media into election campaigns, for example Obama’s Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit and Hillary Clinton setting up a Snapchat, has demonstrated the importance of social media for political engagement. Out of all the $11.4billion political advertising spending in the US, more than half of the $1 billion digital media spending is set aside specifically for social media. In fact, researchers found that over 300,000 more people in the US voted in 2010 elections purely because of a single Facebook message on the day.
All of this leads to the conclusion that social media does in fact encourage political participation, ranging from political discussion online to actually voting. However, it is important to note that the majority of research currently analysing the impact of social media on political engagement focuses on young people, who are increasingly turning to social media as a way of consuming news and opinions, compared to the older generations who may still stick with consuming traditional media such as newspapers and listening to the radio. Moreover, there is a risk of ‘filter bubbles’ within social media, by which a user can block or hide opinions they disagree with, in addition the algorithms imbedded in the sites tailor your experience, so will naturally only show you content you like. This runs a risk of political narrow-mindedness as such, due to the fact that the user may not be open to hearing a spectrum of ideas.