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The current political crisis in Britain stems from a combination of causes, but surely the role of social media in British politics is an exacerbating, if not primary factor.
The 2016 Demos study on the role of digital politics in the United Kingdom found that half of adult British social media users actually used social media for political activity during the previous general election — and, in fact, more people used social media for direct political purposes than those who did equivalent political engagement offline. Almost three-fourths of people surveyed who had gone the digital route politically reported feeling “more politically engaged, in one way or another, as a direct result.” But that engagement was accompanied by something a little more nuanced: those who used social media for political activity reported being more likely to “act on their political convictions” as a result of social media engagement. This included voting, but it may also have included all kinds of political engagement. Between 2015 and now, some parties had a steep learning curve, but now they’re on board — even training their engagement specialists to ignore online trolls.
According to The Guardian: “Political parties nationally spent about £1.3m on Facebook during the 2015 general election campaign; two years later the figure soared to £3.2m.” Now basically unregulated (although that could change), platforms are the new UK political debate stage, used to target voters with both specificities of profiles and generality of aggregate data. Instead of campaigners going to people personally, speaking to them, listening to and transcribing their viewpoints, social media offers, in mass data form, aggregate profiles of people who will vote. The next step is often to target ads, en masse and not very critically, “pounding” voters with non-nuanced, non-dialogical messaging to influence their views. Elected officials and candidates can’t realistically opt-out of such methods. You have stories like that of Ian Lucas, a Member of Parliament from Wrexham, who reports that he feels trapped: “I have to use Facebook in my job to communicate,” Lucas told the BBC… “If I don’t, I know that I will not be competitive as a candidate.
What all of this collectively forms is a picture where political candidates, and officials running for reelection, are “trapped” into using a method that reaches more voters and often reinforces their political commitments via social affirmation — but that risks discouraging face-to-face communication and privileges politically provocative ideas over interpersonal dialogue.
Social media can be a powerful tool of personal, dialogue-oriented campaigning, but that outcome is far from inevitable. It takes time, and staff, to turn FB likes and comments into invitations for activists to get more involved in the political process. It’s basic economics (almost) that encourages advertising geared toward very general (and thus distorted) messaging. In a context such as Brexit, where British society is already very fragmented and often confused, that appeal to the lowest common denominator may become the predominant political method, and UK voters will continue to sacrifice critical dialogue about their relationship with the EU in return for simple, and ultimately ineffective, answers.