News and events

Polls apart?

9 June 2017

In the aftermath of the general election, Head of the University of Hull’s School of Arts and author of two books on the politics of social media, Professor Alec Charles reflects on how social media are affecting our democracy.

Professor Alec Charles

“Without the tweets,” said Donald Trump, “I wouldn’t be here.” Social media ushered Mr Trump into office; and they may yet usher him out of it again. It’s not so much that his election demonstrated the potential for the manipulation of the masses by a social media mastermind; it may instead be that – as Trump, Brexit and our newly elected hung parliament have demonstrated – social media appear to add to democratic processes random factors, elements of unpredictability and even irrationality. They shake things up, and not in ways that politicians or political parties can necessarily control. They may discomfort established elites but only in so far as they disrupt and destabilise democratic processes.

Social media have put politics under relentless public surveillance and scrutiny, and have given politicians opportunities for massive misspeaks and missteps. We might therefore suppose that the one thing social media should have taught politicians and political pundits is to expect the unexpected.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Facebook page has 175 per cent more likes than Theresa May’s. He enjoys three times Mrs May’s number of followers on Twitter. His dominance of social media platforms didn’t result in an election landslide for Labour; but it did reflect and promote a desire for change (particularly among younger voters) which led to the hung parliament.

But social media can be very divisive – or indeed antisocial. They are less about listening and conversation than about projecting oneself into the egocentric ether. When we inhabit the ideological silo of certain kinds of social media bubble, we rarely engage with the diversity of perspectives which we’d expect to experience in offline society – in our local bar, for instance, or in our professional or educational lives.Social media: a chance to discuss, share and celebrate different perspectives.

If you believed your Facebook friends represented the political views of the electorate at large, you’d probably have thought last week that 98 per cent of the British population were either determined Tories or enthusiastic Corbynistas. In other words, you might assume that the vast majority of people share your views (whichever side your views fall) because nearly all your friends on Facebook do so – because your Facebook friends tend to share your background or your demographic characteristics.

By contrast the more open spaces of Twitter invite stark ideological confrontations which can be more immediately divisive. The Twitterati don’t have the wordage available for politeness strategies. In their public sphere of 140-character jousts provoked by the merest hashtag, engagement in civic dialogue tends towards the nasty, brutish and short.

Of course social media have the capacity to sponsor political engagement and empowerment.  But this will happen only when politicians start to use these platforms to listen to voters and develop policies (rather than simply for the one-way communication of their messages and the manufacture of their images as genuine people-people of the people) – and when we all begin in our online conversations to debate, promote and celebrate diverse perspectives. Only then may our interactions on social media shape shared visions of our aspirations for our society, and help us agree on how we might try to make our world a better place.

Back to top