THE BLOG

Can Social Media Hack Democracy in 2015?

06/01/2015 18:37 GMT | Updated 08/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Despite whatever marketers might tell us over the coming weeks, yesterday was truly Blue Monday, the depressing day we all realised that we've got the longest General Election campaign in living memory edging towards us. The evening news felt like the introductory week of The Apprentice as newly-groomed candidates drew their battle lines. It's the one time that the unforgiving finger of Lord Sugar would be eagerly welcomed to spare us from hearing another four and half months of life-sapping electioneering.

And whilst the world around us changes at speed and the internet disrupts so many familiar institutions, the time seems ripe for a shake-up of the British political system too. In an era when even the most robustly stout businesses are falling victim to hacking, isn't there some internet salvation to offer us a way out here? Maybe 2015 is the year that the internet - and social media in particular - finally hacks the British democratic process?

There seem to be several clear ways that the outcome of this year's vote could be swayed by social media.

Firstly if the first casualty of conflict is the truth then the ability to harness the fact checking of millions of voters is a potent way to slap down carefree rhetoric. The opening salvos of the election debate seemed to be filled with claim and counterclaim. The combined minds of social media users are a distributed brain that can quickly get to the facts in such story telling. John Prescott - one of the best British politicians on social media, reinventing himself to project humour and principal in equal portion - has long trumpeted the ability of Twitter to get veracity established in the face of inaccurate reporting. In the 2014 Brazilian election politicians often found their claims had been disproven on Twitter before they'd even left the podium.

Secondly social media is incredibly powerful at distributing messages - especially those that hit an emotional chord. The financial limitations of most British political parties are a defining restriction in our system. More often than not a party launching 'a new poster campaign' is shorthand for a tired looking politico standing in front of a single '48-sheet' showing at a traffic scorched site in Tooting Bec. This is a role where the likes of Twitter and Facebook can play a part. Most social media consists of captions and links - an environment well suited to the get-it-in-a-glance format of political sloganeering. The organisations that can package their messages in easy to consume 'social posters' should do well. (And also expect a laconic dissection of the most memorable efforts).

This brings us to the third role of social media - bolstering votes by triggering 'social proof'. There's strong evidence from the US that people posting their voting intentions has an impact on the ballot box decisions of their friends. This is likely to be particularly of interest as support for the main parties is likely to be lower than ever before. Choosing between Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem seems as appealing to many voters as selecting Britain's Coolest Banker. Current predictions for this May suggest that over a third of all votes will go away from the big two parties with the Green Party, SNP and UKIP likely beneficiaries. With a voting system that seems to openly scorn votes for minority parties, then social proof of seeing your friends voting in this way is almost certainly likely to shore up the support for these formerly fringe groups. Anyone who visited Brighton during the last election campaign will understand the impact that social proof has on voting intentions - when you're surrounded with statements of political support (in that case for the Greens), it's hard to avoid thinking they are meaningful. Get ready, a wave of "I'm voting UKIP" assertions could be more potent (and of course more polarising) than any grassroots campaign we've ever seen before.

The arrival of digital democracy shouldn't surprise anyone in 2015. While looking set to be a sleepy fixture a year ago, the Scottish referendum came to life on social channels. There were more than seven million Tweets about the #Indyref and it developed a momentum that caught the political establishment off guard. Throw in some high profileendorsements and it's no surprise that the atmosphere became febrile. Recalling the - at times - adrenalised panic of the political establishment during early September can act as a reminder of what the internet might do in the months ahead. More broadly in the UK, late November and early December saw over 1.2million Tweets adding their voice to the rolling thunder of the #CameronMustGo hashtag. Additionally there has been brilliant work by @BiteTheBallot - engaging young voters with their #LeadersLive sessions with party supremos.

Our electoral system works best when everyone feels like their voice is being heard. In groups, or by our friends. In 2015 social media finally offers the realistic prospect of that being the case. Maybe over the next few months the wall-to-wall election coverage might show social media holding politicians to account. If the principal benefit is an increase in voter turnout then there'll be good reason to celebrate that's we've hacked our way to a digital democracy.