In today’s digital climate, social media has become a necessity for UK politicians in the run up to the election in May. Whereas businesses and individuals can greatly benefit from what social media has to offer, politicians have always floated uneasily from one platform to the next, knowing full well that one shared scandalous picture or a gaffe has the potential to flush their cheeks to the same colour as a red ministerial box. Get it right and they could win over the undecided, get it wrong and they could lose key voters. Here’s how social media has transformed politics in 2015.

Personalities vs. policies
Social media platforms are in a constant state of flux. In January of this year, there were more than 284 million active users on Twitter sending around 500 million tweets per day. It seems that every facial expression, documented bodily function and day-of-the-week emotion can be found on Twitter, accompanied with a neat little hashtag and perhaps a picture for increased shareability. When this sharing culture has been has been transferred to the world of politics, politicians have been put under a 24-hour microscope like never before.
Let’s face it, not all of us watch Question Time religiously or even know key policy differences between the main parties. This lack of knowledge often results in personality slandering that focuses on rubbery faces and sandwich eating habits that engage the general public in different ways. Whether a few funny pictures will drive the masses to the polling stations remains to be seen. However, it cannot be disputed that social media has changed political engagement and distorted what is most important when choosing our leaders. One of the most important points to touch upon when discussing the merge of policies and personalities is the rise of Nigel Farage as an alternative to the status quo. With a penchant for beer, British values and controlling immigration, he has created a persona that has led him to become the most popular UK politician on Facebook. Along with ample media coverage and a booming online presence, Nigel Farage has managed to infiltrate Westminster and displace Tory MP’s in the process.

The internet doesn’t forget
Perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of politicians is the fact that the internet does not forget. For example, in 2013, it was revealed that the Conservatives removed a decade of speeches that conveniently included the coalition’s key speeches in 2010. In a complete contradiction to the Tories’ position on data transparency in 2010, the party decided to purge speeches and press releases three years later that included promises on the NHS and their claims to stop a surveillance state in the UK. All very interesting, ay? Well, social media viewers certainly found drudging up the past interesting thanks the British Library’s archives. Yes, it can be argued that all politicians need to lie at some point. The difference since the age of social media is that these lies cannot be erased and can come back to haunt them in years to come.
The rise of the alternative
In October 2014, a survey revealed that almost a third of Britons were prepared to back UKIP in the general election if they could win. A few months earlier in May, the BBC received 1,200 complaints about a supposed bias towards Nigel Farage and UKIP in the media – the highest number of complaints ever received during a coverage of an election. While the broadcasters have received a battering for including rising parties, social media has been a dominant force that has changed the status quo away from the three established parties. Perhaps the largest beneficiary of social media’s prowess is the Green party whose members now outnumber the Lib Dems. Membership numbers skyrocketed to 2,000 a day in January after the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, announced that they didn’t make the cut for the national televised political debates.

Increased engagement
Politicians are doomed if they do and damned if they don’t in the age of social media. The tiniest details can be picked up, dissected and sometimes distorted to suit political opinions. Party-led activities on Facebook for example to increase engagement soon becomes a story about five-figure monthly spending and how many followers each leader in light of the mounting costs.
While the details may not contribute greatly to voter turnout in May, these waves on social media has been a driving force in opening up the political landscape to younger, disengaged browsers in the run up to the election.
According to a British Election Study, 18 to 24-year-olds have consistently been the lowest age group to cast their vote since the 1970s and just over 50% voted in the 2010 election. The low turnout year after year has led some pundits to question whether cuts to youth services and pension boosts for the elderly is a consequence of voting behaviour. The fact that young people in the UK are most interested in what celebs are up to on Twitter than the future leaders of Britain certainly says something about current disillusionment. The team at Facebook has tried to bridge the gap with subtle registration reminders, bolstered by figures in 2010 which claimed that 300,000 people voted as a direct result of seeing their friends discussing doing so on Facebook. Now that 89% of 18-29-year-olds use social networking sites, social media has become the communication method of choice for young people on a daily basis. Will the efforts of Facebook and political advocates manage to make a difference to this flagging age demographic or will cats and coloured dresses maintain a dominance? Watch this space!

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