e-lectoral Engagement using Social Media

Updated: 3 April 2013


Overall we can start with some key positives, that there certainly are electoral management bodies and a number of Government agencies, as well as political parties and others that we are not looking so much at, who are using social media to engage citizens in various democratic processes to some extent. I am going to put a lot of contingencies and qualifications on that, but certainly we didn't find that the whole thing is just causing problems. We found that there were some very interesting steps being taken and some interesting types of engagement.

Social media has spread across a very wide range of demographics, but never the less we do know about the so-called democratic deficit, we do know that within younger people there is more of a disinterest, more of a loss of participation in politics and democratic processes. So social media, given that they are heavy users, can quantitatively give us increased access to groups that perhaps we are not reaching through the mass media.

There is the potential for different kinds of engagement. Sociability, the two way interactive capability of social media. They are not mass transmissional media. We can use them to listen to citizens. Mass media is about putting out our message and speaking, and there is very little listening in mass media. Social media are about listening as well as talking.

It's a free 24/7-research site, where you can listen to citizens conversing, expressing their concerns. You may not agree with them, or be happy with them, but you can, it's a barometer to hear what people are saying. We often over look that in the rush to jump into social media, to use them like a traditional media, where we can express our voice and speak.

If there is a lack of listening, if we go into social media and we fail to listen and we fail to respond, it generally does more damage than if you'd not been in there at all. We just have to be mindful that a lot of social media use is not happening in the traditional public sphere, the traditional political environment. People are using social media for non-traditional forms of political participation.

I guess this is the important point to us, if we are living our life in a world where we expect rational debate and we seek consensus, and we seek calm thoughtful engagement, you may not find that in social media.

I am trying to caution against organisations, and many do, rush into social media, seeing it as a panacea to reach young people. See it as they can do the same practices, speak in the same tones, the same language, distribute their same messages and just reach more people. And it is actually not, it is a different space. There are different rules, different approaches, and different practices in that space.

Of course there is a risk of criticism in all media, but in social media because of the loss of gatekeepers, as they call it, because you can pretty much say whatever you like, not so much in your site, but if they don't say it in your site, bear in mind they will say it on some other site. We have to see this risk, this loss of control and this risk of criticism as not a new risk, is what I am suggesting, it has always been there.

What is often overlooked in social media in the excitement of creating a new site, is that the audience begins at zero, and we have to attract the audience. And if we put up only what we want to talk about, which a lot of organisation do, we end up talking to ourselves. And therefore the way to me to see social media, is that it is complementary to all of the other things we do.

So what organisations are now finding is that they have got to reverse this centralisation of communication down to one little department, or one or two people, and they have got to open it back up, and trust people with a lot of training and support to be able to respond to things and comments that are within their area.

The ones that seem to go well all had support of senior management and leadership in the organisation. I haven't found many examples where social media has worked well for the organisation, where the very senior management have been either negative or not onside.

Concluding findings, despite all of the risks, real disasters are rare. All of the conversation you could imagine about electoral matters will actually be happening whether you participate in them or not. It is a question really of whether we want to be engaged in that.

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