The digital world of local politics

Social media usage in Westminster took on a curious twist this week, with consultants and reporters all having a go on the brand new Matt Hancock app, launched unsurprisingly by the Culture Secretary to help him connect with voters in his constituency.

Matt Hancock is not the first MP to try and connect directly to voters through video, though the creation of his own app is certainly a first. Beyond this, Conservative MPs have recently had a crash course in Instagram and other platforms as the party seeks to grow its digital following – all of which is designed to boost the online reach of MPs so they can use these networks to spread the party’s messages at the next election.

This activity raises the question as to what, if any impact, increased engagement with our country’s politicians, be it via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, will have on political engagement at May’s local elections. We know from experience that online political content can have considerable cut through with the general public, as seen by the barrage of such adverts during last year’s General Election. But there is less proof that other apps such as Instagram or Snapchat will have the same result, with new figures from the British Election Study showing that even Labour’s social media strategy, led by Snapchat aficionado Jeremy Corbyn, struggles to have a measurable impact in increasing youth turnout.

Perhaps it is the winning over of younger voters rather than increased turnout where the battle now lies. The Conservatives are perhaps a little late to this party. As the recent figures from the British Election Study show, Labour received significantly more votes from younger voters at the election, but this was far short of the “youthquake” that the party expected, as turnout by younger voters was not out of line with a general increase in voting amongst all age groups.

The UK’s other parties have also shown a strong grasp of social media platforms to support their voter outreach, which for smaller parties has proven invaluable in boosting media coverage and awareness for party issues.

But if the activity of some of the UK’s biggest political figures on social media cannot be expected to have a significant impact on voting numbers, it raises the question as to how impactful social media can be at local elections, where councillors are rarely able to command similar followings as those on the national stage, and often lack the skills or the resources to utilise their websites and social media fully.

Where social media may play a role this spring is in the activation of local members, particularly from Labour’s social movement Momentum, who may be able to overcome the traditional apathy towards local elections by ensuring local members are engaged and effective in getting out the vote.

Traditional voter outreach will likely remain the most effective tool for local campaigns for a considerable time – at least until social media platforms and the politicians that use them manage to grab the attention of voters as a whole, and not just those with a strong interest in politics who have nothing better to do than download an app by the Culture Secretary.

Author

Michael McLaughlin

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