Underneath the Momentum flashmobs and the Brexit battlebus, politics has a problem with participation. Over the last fifty years, troubling trends have settled in: decline in electoral turn-out nationally and locally, a drop-off in mass political membership (notwithstanding some recent surges), and rock-bottom levels of trust in politicians themselves. Anti-politics has become the dominant mood, there is a pervasive mistrust in power and the powerful (one felt by many to be richly deserved) and a broad sense that our democratic institutions are too distant and remote from our lives and concerns. Almost all of us are democrats, but few of us think that democracy is working well.
All of this is highly generational. Each generation that enters the electorate is less attached to any political party, and less likely to vote, than the one that came before. In 2013, the average age of a Conservative Party member was 59 years. In 2015, the average age of all party members was almost 50. The average age of local councillors across all parties is 60. According to a survey before the general election last year, 70 per cent of young people would consider voting 'none of the above'. This all comes together into a vicious cycle: the fact that politicians and Parliament feels so far away breeds mistrust in it, which pushes people away still further.
Yet, whilst fewer and fewer people are turning to conventional ways of making their voices heard, something else - incredibly important - has been happening too: the use of social media has exploded. Over half of British adults now regularly use it, and often to make their voice heard in new and different ways.
Over the General Election, we studied what this meant for politics. The aim was to learn about how many people used social media to get stuck into the political debate and what they were using it for. Above all, we wanted to see whether social media was a new way for people to participate in political life. The results, based on a poll representative of UK adult social media users by Ipsos MORI, is out today, as The Rise of Digital Politics.
First, we found that political participation is shifting to online platforms. Based on the poll, half of social media users had sent or read political content in the build-up to the general election. That's more than the number of social media users who had done any kind of political activity offline.
Second - and for me this is the most important finding of the research - People weren't just doing digital politics; digital politics made them feel more involved and engaged in the whole process. 72 per cent of people who had used social media for politics, reported that they felt more politically engaged as a direct result, including 41% who felt more engaged in the political debate and 39% who felt more likely to vote. If this poll holds for all social media users, that's 7.1 million people, for instance, who felt more likely to vote.
Third, digital politics benefits those groups least likely to otherwise have anything to do with formal politics. Young people, the group least likely to vote, were the second most likely age category to do politics on social media, and the most likely to feel the benefits of it. A fifth of people who said they weren't interested in politics but had sent or received political content on social media felt that it made them feel better able to express their political views, and a quarter (26%) felt it directly made them more likely to vote.
What does all this mean? The big challenge and opportunity is this: digital politics is not just an opportunity to win power, but to wield power better. The digital world has become a key battleground during every political campaign; central to each Party's strategy in how to raise volunteers, win votes, frame issues, and get money. That same culture of innovation, the daring and restless experimentation that have happened in the technologies that power digital campaigning, and in the campaigns that use them, also need to be applied to the basic democratic system itself. Now is the time to seriously contemplate using technology to transform democracy.
There's lots of ways this can happen; some quite humble, others ragingly ambitious and far-reaching. Closest to home is to simply use technology to better connect people to their representatives. Politicians, local and national, can use social media as a two-way street; to listen to the fears, hope and priorities of constituents as well as broadcasting at them. More ambitious would be to recognise online groups, communities and mobilisations as legitimate interest groups in policy-making, from planning applications to the reform of an NHS service. Peoples' voices are out there in the digital world, and they should be listening to.
However, for the first time in centuries, technology is also making possible new ways of actually making democracy work. This is, in one form or another, from electronic voting and online deliberative platforms to wikified official documents. The opportunities are both almost endless and also incredibly difficult. There are plenty of risks here, from overt manipulation of online spaces to the exclusion of the most vulnerable voices in society who tend to use digital technologies the least. Digital democracy is easy to recommend in a blog post and terrifyingly difficult to actually enact.
Democracy has to involve more than holding elections every five years. It has to be participatory, part of our everyday lives, a matter of habit and routine. This means that it has to change as our lives change. Now, it has to become a democracy fit for the digital age. We've seen the rise of digital politics, we now need to see the beginnings of digital democracy.
Carl Miller is the Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos. Read the full report on 'The Rise of Digital Politics' here
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