“Let me put it as simply as I can, Britain and Twitter — they are not the same thing,” said David Cameron in his 2015 Conservative party conference speech. Whilst he may be correct in saying that the views of the so-called 'Twitterati' don't necessarily represent the views of the wider electorate, it would be a seriously short-sighted move to write off the growing importance of Twitter and other social media platforms in politics. Although it can inevitably lead to gaffes galore, it also provides politicians with the opportunity to reach thousands and sometimes millions of people whilst circumventing the traditional media outlets. Here are a few recent examples of how how social media is having a direct influence on modern day politics.
Donald J. Trump
On the eve of the first televised US presidential debate, it's difficult to write a blog like this and avoid mentioning a certain Mr. Trump. His Twitter account offers an unfiltered portal into the wacky world that is Donald Trump's mind. And whilst it's easy enough to find a list of his most outrageous tweets, he is reaching an astonishing number of people each and every week - something which is all the more important for someone who continuously lambasts the so-called 'liberal media' that he reckons are actively trying to discredit him. He currently boasts 11.7 million Twitter followers and 10.8 million Facebook likes, making him one of the most-followed politicians on social media. His tweets regularly receive upwards of 10,000 retweets, with some receiving as many as 40,000. If the average Twitter user has 208 followers, then it could be estimated that one tweet like that could reach as many as 8.3 million people. To put it into context, that's almost 4 times more viewers than the most-watched US TV channel - Fox News - receives in a single week. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that his Twitter feed drives the news agenda in not just the USA, but around the world.
Staying in America, we now turn our attentions to the former Democratic nominee hopeful Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator energised a huge movement in the country this year - largely comprised of millennials - that almost unexpectedly delivered him the presidential nomination for the Democrats. Driven in large part by the ubiquitous '#FeelTheBern' hashtag, Sanders may not have the same number of followers as Trump or Clinton, but he can boast of having the most-engaged fanbase out of any of the presidential candidates. It may not have been enough to put him in the White House, but it would be foolish to underestimate the impact on social media on his incredible popularity with young voters, with the graph below indicating how he utterly dominated the youth vote in the presidential primaries and caucuses.
The rise of Bernie Sanders in the USA leads us neatly on to a similar phenomenon here in the UK - that of a certain Jeremy Corbyn. Recently re-elected as leader of the Labour party with 62% of the vote, he has repeatedly noted the importance that social media has played in his two successful leadership campaigns. Clearly it is not just politics that Sanders and Corbyn have in common - both have mobilised huge support from youth voters largely via the power of social media. So much so that Corbyn last month said he is planning a 'Sanders-style campaign' for the next UK general election., utilising new digital technologies and making social media the driving force of the campaign. Another similarity the pair share is being attached to some pretty catchy hashtags. Before 2015's leadership election, Corbyn supporters created and used the #JezWeCan slogan so much that at one point it was being used once every 25 seconds in the UK. It has since evolved into #JezWeDid, #JezWeCanAgain and...well, I'm sure you can guess the latest iteration. Aside from his obvious effectiveness at harnessing the power of social media, Corbyn has also showed he isn't afraid to embrace other platforms. Earlier this year he became the first major political party leader in the UK to join Snapchat, in what seems another attempt to further attract the young vote. And so far, it's certainly helping him to attract young voters. Back in April, a YouGov indicated that his approval rating amongst 18-24 year olds was +15, comparing very favourably with David Cameron's -16 rating across the same age bracket.
There is one caveat to all of this. Social media, as Cameron alluded to, hasn't yet decided a governmental election. For all of Trump's, Sanders' and Corbyn's success on various platforms, none of them have yet been elected into government - though that could all change on November 6 after the US elections. However, it's hard to argue with the fact that social media has played an important role in catapulting previous unknowns, outcasts or fringe figures into the political spotlight, mobilising millions of potential voters along the way. And as spending on social media spending topped £1.2m during last year's election in the UK, that figure can only be expected to increase over the next few years as more and more parties wake up to the potential political power of social media.