It used to be one of those things that were passed down the generations, like playing the piano or having blue eyes. Who you vote for – or whether you vote at all – has always been influenced by family ties. Our recent political research has confirmed this but increasingly people are taking an alternative approach, as Simon Szreter argued in History and Policy:
Whilst a generation ago, individual voters would identify their allegiance with a party’s ideology before enquiring about its policies, this has now been turned on its head. Voters think first about what policies they support and then seek to match this with a political party, often using web-based tools.
I spent most of April considering who to vote for, trying very hard to put prejudice aside and make rational judgement based on more than the shininess of Dave’s forehead. This made me more aware of the political messages being pushed in my direction.
The 2010 General Election was meant to represent a paradigm shift in how parties campaign. The theory was that parties would move from the hierarchical top-down approach (where all messages and agendas are carefully controlled) to a more bottom up approach where voters set the agenda and engage in a dialogue with parties and themselves.
I thought it would be interesting to see how the internet was being used to influence me – and others like me – in the month leading to polling day. Not a census of activity, rather an individual case study approach for a 20 something male who use the internet most days. When I noticed something on my travels, I took a screen grab. Were the communications designed to make me aware, make me consider a party or an issue or to trigger action? The results are shown below:
Some observations then.
I didn’t notice that many examples. From all the hot air generated about the power of social media I was expecting to be subjected to an Obama-style groundswell buffeting my sails. This failed to materialise. Online display was low on the horizon and search advertising was absent.
The conservative party were the most active: Facebook page, Facebook news feeds & YouTube homepage takeover on polling day. One can only speculate on their coffers…
There were only a few examples of friends explicitly trying to influence other friends’ voting intentions online. Those doing so tended to be the political ones – who would do so anyway in person.
The majority of peer to peer activity took the form of emailed hyperlinks rather than social media. The peers in this case were interested in taking the mickey – not influencing my vote.
There were precious few examples of good creative in paid for media. The Electoral Commission display ad was my main example. It captured my attention and successfully called me to action. Anecdotally this has been well targeted and hugely successful, part of an integrated campaign achieving 460k website visits and 200k registration downloads (though I’m unsure what the media spend was).
There were some unexpected sources. The ethics of voting and the merits of spoiling one’s ballot from Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis anyone? This links to some work I am doing on who counts as an expert online which I will share in the near future.
So other than the fact I spend a disproportionate amount of my time online on Facebook (told you this wasn’t representative), what have I learnt? Two things. First, in comparison to old media my online election was underwhelming. Old media played a decisive role for me. I had flyers for all 6 of the parties standing in my constituency via door drop clearly identifying why I should bother turning out for them. The TV debates drew me in like everyone else. The 8-9am commute meant I was a captive to Radio 4 and the twenty minute Today Programme daily interview.
Second, despite all this rational investigation I ended up voting the same way as my family. Sorry shiny Dave.
Reconvene in 2015?