Conventionally, young people are disengaged with politics, with many taking little interest in political developments and elections generating a low voter turnout amongst 18-24 years olds. In the 2010 UK General Election, just 44% of young voters turned up to the ballot box to vote. However, as reported by the FT, in 2017 this number had risen to 64%. One reason for this is the rise of digital and its effect on the political landscape and engagement amongst young people.
So, what has changed?
Social media influencers
Politics is changing with the advent of social media, and in many ways this can be attributed to the power of ‘influencers’. Who’d have thought that a simple tweet or Instagram post could switch young people on to the impact of politics on our everyday life?
One example is Youtuber and Blogger Tanya Burr. With an amassed 3.1m followers on Instagram, over 3.6m subscribers on YouTube and a dedicated audience of 3.2m on Twitter, her word is gospel to her predominantly young fans, and it’s not surprising that organisations have collaborated with her to use her platform as a vehicle for politics.
Amongst her work so far she has attended the free periods protest organised at Downing Street to highlight the plight of young school girls in poverty, spoke at the UN to promote gender equality, reacted openly to the Brexit outcome on Twitter and supported the recent #TimesUp campaign.
Seeing an ‘everyday’ person like Tanya address politics has created conversation in the comments of her posts, videos and tweets, and no doubt will have spurred an interest in the previously apathetic youth, contributing to rising rates of voting engagement amongst young people
Political campaigns go social
Social media has now become an active tool in political campaigns orchestrated by the parties themselves, with candidates utilizing Facebook and Twitter to deliver information on their policies and promises to the electorate. Propaganda has gone digital, and partisan disputes are often voiced with video content and infographics directed at the shortcomings of the opposition.
Donald Trump’s notorious presence on Twitter is a key example of how politics is changing in the digital age, as he has been consistent in using his platform to voice his views and ambitions for his leadership, with his Twitter feed becoming an instrument for his campaign and presidency.
Whilst his social media activity has been questioned on more than one occasion (e.g. the infamous ‘covfefe’ tweet), it can’t be denied that his conversation on the platform has generated an interest in politics from voters that perhaps would not have been achieved had this tool not been available to him. This age group has retweeted him, created memes and openly commented on his posts, increasing engagement amongst young people.
Gone are the days when politics could only be found between the pages of a broadsheet. Nowadays, national and global news can be accessed at the swipe or click of a smartphone, and with the advent of news on social media, we simply can’t escape politics in our daily online browsing.
With the ease of access to BBC News via an app or our Facebook news feed, political news is unavoidable, and as the in-depth issues are usually wrapped up in a catchy headline, it’s no wonder that young people are becoming more politically engaged, sharing and commenting on stories in a way that would not have occurred had news not gone digital.
Also, let’s not forget the hot topic of ‘fake news’ and misinformation which has been highlighted as a hugely influential factor in US and Brexit voting. Today, young people are more likely to find three or more sources to substantiate information they see on social media before ‘trusting’ it.
Access to online conversation
The digital world has opened up a wealth of opportunities for debate and conversation on political issues. Whether this is on a Facebook post shared by a friend, a forum or in the comment section of an Instagram account, the internet has made it easy to share political views and generate a discussion in seconds.
On Instagram, accounts such as march creates open conversation around equality, classism and social issues in an accessible way, generating digital engagement around important political issues.
This accessibility to millienials has undoubtedly created an interest from the apathetic age group, as being part of a debate no longer requires access to a debating chamber or elite club. As young people are given the opportunity to discuss their views without barriers, engagement is increasing.
We all remember Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign in which he plastered a promise to fund the NHS with £350 million across the side of a bus. When asked on TV whether he would guarantee that the money pledged for the health service during the campaign would be spent, he disowned the pledge and claimed that he never said those words.
But thanks to social media, millions of people had seen this propaganda on Twitter and Facebook, making it impossible to forget and possible to hold Farage accountable.
This just proves the power of digital to change the political landscape, and get people questioning political leaders and holding parties to account for the promises they make in a digital age. Ultimately, as this questioning is broadcast across digital, engagement increases amongst the young people regularly using the online platform who are exposed to this.