Widespread political engagement has long been viewed as the foundation for a successful democracy; it is a crucial aspect of modern day western politics. However, political engagement is adapting to encompass new forms of participation that mobilise sectors of eligible voters, voters who have previously felt disenfranchised with traditional forms of political engagement. Peer-based “participatory politics”, born from an era of increasing social media interaction, is being looked to by some academics as the solution to boost youth engagement in politics.
Youth political engagement through social media has already altered the political landscape and the future of political canvassing. Digital campaigning agencies like Avantgarde Analytics are said to be pursuing artificial intelligence approaches in order to create algorithms that can improve the reach of targeted personalised messages. Although, at surface level, this may seem beneficial in the endeavour to politically engage young people, it may do more to divide members of society. Using targeted artificial intelligence can lead to further divisions. Citizens within the same age group may be fed differing messages from campaigners based on their socio-economic background. This dynamic form of canvassing further disrupts any hope of a level playing field for political parties.
In recent years, the left has prevailed in social media campaigning. Grassroots movements such as ‘Grime4Corbyn’, a campaign headed by grime artists such as Jamie Adenuga, aka JME, and Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr, aka Stormzy, galvanised the support of many youth voters for the Labour Party, whilst simultaneously fighting against political apathy. The campaign was hailed a massive success, being attributed by many as boosting youth turnout of registered voters into the high 60%, marking the highest youth turnout in 25 years. This form of interactive, interconnected political activism is immune to factors such as constituency boundaries and council funding, that have previously impacted the range of influence of political organisations and their messages. Alongside this, social media has granted a platform for previously unheard individuals, where a tweet can go ‘viral’ gaining ‘impressions’ from thousands of likeminded people. The openness of the internet means that posts from unknown bloggers are as accessible as mainstream media headlines.
At first glance this rise in political activism and participatory politics may appear beneficial; politicians can interact with ordinary people on Twitter to respond to popular concerns and adjust campaigns in alignment with citizen’s grievances and suggestions. However, social media campaigning has a tendency to be shallow and superficial in its address of issues. One of the main concerns for the promotion of social media usage to connect with the youth vote, is the ‘dumbing down’ of issues for quick, easily digestible headlines. Considerable online media presence is moving towards the form of witty headlines and ad hominem attacks which fail to provide substantive educational messages. In 2014, when Ed Miliband was photographed awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich, media outlets ran the story using it to fuel a campaign criticising the Leader of the Opposition as inept and out of place, unfit to be Prime Minister. Character attacks of this nature have not been redundant since, especially since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Videos impersonating the President unfavourably have racked up tens of millions of views online, with popular skits by Alec Baldwin featuring on prime-time US television.
Although these forms of satire bring politics into the thoughts of every day, otherwise potentially apathetic, individuals, they often fail to provide thorough critique to policy. This culture of shallow, personality-based politics can lead to serious issues in politics where appearance takes precedence over substance. In this period of increasingly interconnected online society, it is important to consider our absorption of political messages in order to sift reality from spin.