Hardly any of us join political parties any more. Membership has tumbled - the Tories and Labour combined had nearly 4 million members in 1953. That's now closer to 400,000. At the same time, we're spending more and more time on social media, and many more of us are getting involved in political parties on Facebook and Twitter. Yet the main political parties' failure to exploit social media properly is leaving the digital space open to radicals and populists.
While declining membership highlights the growing irrelevance of traditional party structures, the rise of social media has provided a new digital public space for political discussion. 31.4 million Britons have Facebook accounts, effectively half the entire population, and around 13 minutes of every hour spent online is spent on the site. There are around 15 million Twitter users (though many profiles are inactive). All told, one in twelve of our waking minutes is spent online, discussing, among other things, politics.
The fringe parties, faced with smaller bases of support, fewer resources and less influence, have been quicker to adapt to the digitisation of modern life than the established parties. In June last year Charlie Wythe, head of publicity for the far-right British National Party, announced a 'BNP social media revolution': a new activism app that would incentivise the spreading of party propaganda online by their activists. For the cash-strapped BNP, it was a serious investment; 'we are having to dig deep' wrote Wythe in an email circulated at the time.
The BNP's activism app is a very sophisticated tool which 'games' social media activism. Every month, every activist starts with 0 points. By sharing links on Twitter or Facebook, commenting on or liking articles and updating their statuses with BNP propaganda messages, activists earn points and work their way up the leaderboard. The activist who has been the most active wins £100, with runners up earning free subscriptions to the BNP newsletter or even virtual 'medals'.
The prize money is not really what incentivises online activism. The strength of the app lies in creating a sense of competition which in turn lends direction to activism efforts. Moreover, it allows greater coordination in the BNP's messaging; for example, app users receive emails with key words to use in their statuses. The use of these words is measured using the point system.
In its first month, June 2013, 400 activists registered for the app - and that generated nearly 5,000 extra site visits in a few weeks. The BNP estimated that initially their new social media activists helped them reach another 240,000 social media accounts; less than six months later, this estimated extended audience had grown to over 390,000, with nearly 700 core online activists. The BNP website is now the second most popular political party website after UKIP's.
This app contrasts sharply with the often ineffective efforts of the mainstream parties, none of which have produced a social media tool of comparable sophistication. For instance, both the Conservatives and the Labour party long ago released iPhone apps, which provide users with policy information, local event information and even some phone activism functions. Yet their relatively simplistic attempts at social media engagement fail to harness the power of social media in the way the BNP app does. That is worrying.
Relative to its tiny size, its social media reach has rapidly become enormous. The BNP Facebook page currently has over 152,000 likes, in comparison the Liberal Democrats' page has just over 97,000. Even the Conservatives, the most popular party on Facebook, have only 223,000 likes. What's more, the BNP's Facebook presence is growing far more rapidly than that of other political parties.
Today, the BNP poses little threat to the political establishment, whatever their reach on social media. Come Election Day, it is still the number of votes a party gains that matters, not the number of likes it has on Facebook. But if the mainstream parties continue to neglect meaningful social media efforts and fail to reshape their political machines to adapt to our new, increasingly digital modes of living, they will continue to lose their connection to the population they seek to represent. Parties like the BNP will be ready to step in.