THE BLOG

Student Elections or Social Media Popularity Contests: Taking the Internet out of the Running

07/03/2013 12:51 GMT | Updated 06/05/2013 10:12 BST

Every year at universities across the country, students stand for positions on the committee of their student union. Positions range from union president to chairs for various student-run societies, all of which will undoubtedly add clout to a subsequent CV. With the ever-present network of social media sites used widely by students, along with nominees who know to capitalise on the purchasing power of offering free anything as part of their manifesto, many students are becoming disillusioned with union elections as being nothing more than a popularity contest for better known students.

Theoretically, union elections offer the chance for students to get involved with the running of the university, either by running as a candidate themselves or by voting for someone who most embodies the spirit of the union (or the spirits of the union bar, depending on your particular area of interest). Manifestos range from the sublime to the ridiculous in their promises, many of which are appealing enough that the likelihood of them ever being implemented is not discussed. Who needs to talk about whether a university is likely, in reality, to fund bus travel from nightclubs every night when a candidate for Union President says it shall be so?

Unfortunately, the lack of palpable change that we're seeing in our unions is having an effect on what, and who, we vote for. I've just seen my third set of university elections, as have most of my friends, and to say we're unenthused is an understatement. As someone who takes a passionate interest in politics, I wish I could honestly say that I'd taken as thorough a read of my fellow students' manifestos as I do my potential MPs. Most people, myself (until recently) included, would argue that it's my responsibility to make sure I'm fully aware of the plans of those I'm voting for. My only rebuttal, weak as it may be, is that I genuinely hold out no hope that any of the plans I've seen plastered on t-shirts at the university night club are going to come into fruition.

So, who did I vote for when I logged on last week? Perhaps regrettably, I chose to vote for the people whose names have popped up most regularly on my Facebook and Twitter feeds - and I'm not the only one. Most of my peers and I have resigned ourselves to a seemingly inevitable popularity contest occurring at university each February, and generally speaking, when results are announced, there are very few surprises - it's usually the name of the person with the most prominent social media status that clinches the position.

Despite my resigned, slightly infuriated take on the selection of union leaders, I really don't believe that this is the fault of any of our candidates but of the election process as a whole. Candidates do, and should, take advantage of every way possible of getting their messages heard, whether or not they're likely to ever come into being. But why should the bloke with two thousand Facebook friends made after an assortment of wild nights out in Fresher's Week gain more exposure than the one who hasn't bothered with Facebook but has given some serious thought to identifying sensible proposals that will benefit students?

Although I believe that those standing for positions need to know their audience, the majority of whom certainly do make use of social media, I don't believe that candidates should be so heavily penalised for choosing to spend some of their time away from the screen and start talking to voters. What would happen if we took the internet out of the union election equation?

Presumably we could expect candidates to get out there and make better use of marketing and campaigning strategies, employed at the moment as a back-up for internet-based promotion. We might also get better-researched and more direct answers to our questions about the realistic nature of a proposal. It's all very well bluffing about how you're going to put a plan into action when you've got three hours, a thesaurus and a whole host of supporters to 'like' your comments to hand, but what if you have to explain your policies to a student who's standing right in front of you in a manner that's a lot less prescribed than hustings? In all likelihood we'd get clearer answers from those who genuinely cared, and would be able to weed out those who don't fairly quickly.

In reality, we're not going to see major changes in union elections because, as I mentioned, the internet is a valuable tool that's used by multitudes of students and allows candidates to get their thoughts and proposals out to those who most need to see them. It's worth considering, however, that the old-school approach of well thought through and above all feasible policies which are put out there with words rather than typing or photography skills may make it a lot easier to choose that standout candidate.