In the UK, one in three minutes spent online are devoted to social media and instant messaging. When it comes to running an election campaign, that amount of engagement online is both a blessing and a curse. You have potential access to the 45 millions people (67%) in the UK who are social media users (and potential voters) but so do your competitors.
The 2019 election campaign trail is proving to be one of the most divisive we’ve ever seen. In ITV’s recent General Election debate, 51% of the public polled said that Boris Johnson won, while 49% said Jeremy Corbyn won. When we look at the fact that the Brexit referendum was similarly split at 48% to 52%, it looks like the country has remained politically divided in these three and a half years.
Online, we connect to people who have a similar mindset. We are friends with people on Facebook who we’ve known since childhood, and who have grown up in a similar environment to us.
We follow people on Twitter who we like, or who we think speak on our behalf. This is often referred to as an ‘echo chamber’, where we are constantly bombarded with the same opinions that mirror our own. This in itself raises a huge concern and has caused us to unconsciously narrow our information base to sit within our own network. For young people, newspapers and even TV are becoming a thing of the past. We are now consuming our news, and then forming our opinions, online.
However, as social media has developed, so has the way in which we use it. 'Fake news' and false information spreads fast, and we are so quick to digest it, that our opinions of party leaders and policies can be switched in seconds.
This was demonstrated very recently, following the recent London Bridge terror attack. 49 minutes after the Met Police received the first call alerting them to the ongoing attack at Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge, a fake Tweet was published. The Tweet was constructed over an hour and a half before Jeremy Corbyn’s official Twitter account acknowledged the attack.
Without fact-checking, or even checking the Labour Party leader’s official account, many people believed that it was real. It appeared legitimate, and for many people it fit the idea they had in their head of Corbyn.
This leads to the reliance (and rise in popularity) of fact-checking websites who are targeting disinformation. These sites take what has been said by different parties, whether that’s in real life or online, and confirm whether what they’re saying is real or fake.
However, even fact-checking services are not safe from political propaganda. Recently the Conservative-owned Twitter account, @CCHQPress, changed its name to factcheckUK, effectively jumping on the back of the reliability of these accounts to further their campaign.
Luckily, it was called out pretty quickly. But had the damage been done? If you can no longer trust the fact-checking services, where can you go to check information before spreading it?
The sad answer is that it looks as though people aren’t fact checking at all. Social media has made the information we want to read so easy to find, that most people won’t check before sharing it. If it fits your own personal agenda, why would you question it?
With the next general election mere hours away, the amount of political content on social media will not be slowing down. Luckily, a lot of young people are cutting through the noise and going to impartial quiz sites where you can give your opinion on different policies to tell them what party their beliefs most align with. This gives me hope, as it shows that young people are actively trying to avoid the propaganda and see exactly where their own morals lie. However, we have to ask ourselves how long it will be before these sites are also taken advantage of.
The issue with forming opinions online is that it's a fast-paced mentality. Before the internet age, many young people got their views through newspapers that equally had an agenda or unverifiable word of mouth. Everyone has their own opinion and agenda, and for better or worse, that will never change.
Mel Ramsay, head of editorial at Social Chain Media