From polls to scrolls: Social media heats up the election campaign.

Voters think social media could influence their vote, but say it’s ruining political debate. Now political parties have adapted to online campaigning, can they make it work in their favour?

The parties are stepping up their battles as we edge closer to the most unpredictable general election in recent history. But aside from old tactics like leafleting and television ads, politicians and voters are turning to a new weapon in the propaganda wars: social media.

New research has found that a third of young people expect social media to influence their vote. Over half say it helps break down barriers between voters and politicians, and 71% say it gives a voice to those who wouldn’t normally take part in political debates. Social media gives voters the opportunity to discuss and debate issues between themselves, and directly with politicians; it allows politicians to relay messages and react quickly.

Yet alongside all these positive developments, the survey also revealed widespread worries over the effect of Twitter and Facebook on political debate. Over half of respondents agreed that social media has made politics more divisive and superficial. As a social media expert working for a think tank says, ‘Twitter’s boos always drown out the cheers, usually in great volume.’

Labour and the Conservatives have invested heavily in social media for their campaigns: the Conservatives are spending £100,000 a month on Facebook alone. For the man behind Labour’s digital strategy, it is a serious business: ‘If we can be funny or entertaining, great. But our end goal isn’t creating content. It is to win votes’.

The parties are also looking to US President Barack Obama for inspiration, who was dubbed the ‘social media president’ after his 2008 campaign. Americans attribute his success to hispersonable online identity, and how he made voters feel involved. Labour’s election co-ordinator says the Obama campaign ‘has been much in our thoughts’.

But one journalist calls the Conservative’s campaign ‘lavishly uncivilised’, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage says his opponents are running the ‘most negative campaign ever’. Is social media amplifying and accelerating cynicism as one BBC journalist says? Or is it broadening the debate?

[divider]Retweet or rethink?[/divider]

Some say winning this election would be impossible without social media. It gives voters a voice on an unprecedented level, making them feel involved and encouraged to join in the debate. It forces politicians to act fast, and allows them to communicate with voters in a democratic way without the media’s political bias.

The ephemeral nature of social media, others argue, does not lend itself well to serious political debate. Politicians use it to argue among themselves, focusing on sensationalist slogans and cheap taunts that do nothing to inform or engage. Twitter does more harm than good.

‘There will never be a truly social media election.’

– Graham McMillan

Has social media made any difference to UK politics in the past? The 2010 election was the first that could really benefit from social media, as Twitter was only created in 2006. It was also the first election to see televised leaders’ debates, and social media proved to be a useful tool to run alongside this.

However, effects from the campaign were minimal. Voter turnout increased slightly among the younger generation, but not massively.

What’s the fun in watching political parties just argue among themselves? While serving each other low blows, the parties also have some valid points. Negative campaigning has been criticised, however, and has proven to have a negative impact on voters. But there is also plenty of information on what positive changes each party is proposing.