Facebook: Haven for Participation, or Microcosm of an Ignored Society?
‘Power to the people’ is a phrase recently boasted by the Conservative manifesto and preached in various ways across the campaigns of all three bickering leaders. But perhaps most prominently of all, it has been lingering across the lips of an electorate who actually feels incredibly powerless.
Pitiful voter turnout in the UK suggests the people actually feel so far away from power that they can’t even be bothered to try and utilise their measly one vote; in 2001, turnout was only 51.4%, suggesting that half of those eligible to vote remained apathetic.
Moreover, our somewhat outdated first-past-the-post electoral system has left people openly protesting that they won’t vote because “it’s not going to make a difference anyway”. Indeed, one vote can often feel lost amongst a sea of red yellow or blue, depending on your constituency.
However, the recent explosion of political activity on Facebook in the wake of the 2010 General Election, has called into question how apathetic voters really are. Once criticised for being a drain on intellect and imagination, Facebook has suddenly become a centre for engagement and campaigning, providing people an arena for debate, association and speech.
Take firstly the assortment of light hearted yet combative groups. ‘I bet we can find 1,000,000 people who want proportional representation’, ‘Vote for a change’ and ‘I bet I can find 1 million people who don’t want David Cameron as our PM’, are just three examples, each boasting thousands of members. The groups, made in jest or not, certainly point to a previously unseen flurry of opinion and enthusiasm among the younger, social-networking generations which perhaps our 18+ voting system fails to accommodate for.
We all remember the ‘Clegg-mania’ that hit the country after the first televised leader’s debate. Nowhere were its effects expressed more prominently than over Facebook. Students and adults alike swarmed the site with pro-Clegg status updates, and suddenly everyone on Facebook seemed to be voting Lib Dem. The official Liberal Democrat Facebook group seemed to surge in numbers faster than the Tories could recite the words ‘Hung-Parliament’. ‘Rage against the Tories’ was perhaps one of the more light hearted groups, mimicking the earlier X Factor group, ‘Rage against the machine to number 1’, designed as a petition to break the chain of the X Factor Christmas number ones.
Most compelling of all, however, was in no doubt Democracy UK on Facebook. This organisation which calls itself ‘Facebook’s page for politics’, boasts over 280,000 members, and was responsible for the election day poll count, which hit numbers of around 1,942,000 towards the final hours of May 6th. Democracy UK, hence the name, is clearly designed as an arena of political engagement which for years respected scholars like Colin Hay have despaired over. Hay’s book ‘Why we hate politics’ addresses problems like those of political disenchantment and voter apathy, yet the words ‘voter apathy’ are far from the first to come to mind when exploring Democracy UK. The page is home to over 200 discussion topics including ‘Cannabis’ and ‘My personal problems with PR’, and since the election it has continued to post political news updates, such as the confirmed leadership campaigns of the Milliband brothers. Most importantly however, the page started off as a centre for regular updates and debate surrounding the 2010 election, and more specifically, the televised leaders’ debates. Countless people joined to engage with the page’s call for users’ reactions as the debates took place. Such a rapid acceleration of members around this time perhaps exemplifies the people’s thirst for an arena in which to finally ventilate their hushed voices.
Facebook’s Democracy UK then appears to provide a welcoming indication of change to the silence and insignificance voter’s have previously felt victim to. It seemed that as more and more political groups emerged, more and more people would create and join them. Democracy UK housed many passionate debates particularly about who to vote for, an addition to an outburst in debate throughout the array of other political groups. However, the significance of this flare of participation is called into question after the election actually happened. Take, for instance, the sheer volume of clearly articulated Lib Dem support. The actual success of the Lib Dems on the 6th May was limited, as they not only failed to win, but actually lost seats.
The new Facebook topic to follow this is the demand for Electoral Reform in the form of PR. Yet while during initial talks between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, this seemed the key to any deal Clegg agreed to make with the Tories, critics are now arguing that since a Coalition has actually been agreed, this offer is being pushed down the agenda.
Retreat has perhaps been signified by the groups themselves, most prominently perhaps by the group; ‘David Cameron is PM. Deal with it. Stop whinging on Facebook’. Does this mark once again the retreat to the tyranny of our first-past-the-post electoral system, which put Cameron at No. 10 on less than half of the popular vote?
The answer is to look further. Thousands of complaints about the result and outcome of post election negotiations are swarming Facebook and certainly, one generation is able to articulate quite clearly that they feel ignored. Yet, while admittedly Facebook is becoming somewhat titanic, there are a hell of a lot of people who don’t use it. The mistake young people are making may well be holding the false belief that Facebook has become some kind of microcosm of not only the UK, but the entire global community. When the Lib Dems won a mere 57 seats come 7th May, Facebook was outraged, many users complaining of being ‘cheated’. Yet were these users thinking outside their cosy Facebook realm to the vast existence of the older generations, who remembered only too well that the Lib Dems “have no chance of winning”, and that this was a two party battle? Whether ideal or not, the reality is that it will take more than a few Facebook groups and status debates for the older generation to jump on the ‘Rage against the Tories’ bandwagon.
When are rural voters and farmers, who accommodate a tremendous proportion of Conservative support, ever going to have the time or desire to sit down and engage in political tittle tattle on Facebook after a hard days’ work? Moreover, when will the 9-5 working mums or early shift nurses ever choose Facebook over a well earned sleep during the late night networking hours of most students?
The truth is they won’t. The only Facebook users who are that addicted to it to actually bother getting into these political debates and group manufacturing are likely to be either students or unemployed. And as the somewhat ‘alien’ generations who “don’t do Facebook” showed us on May 6th, they still swing very much red and blue.
Perhaps you could argue that the insignificance of social networking Democracy has been truly symbolised by the Con-Lib coalition; a deal many Facebook users angrily protested against, but found themselves nevertheless ‘Con-Demned’.
Where this will take us when the last of the Facebook-free generations pass however, is another question. Perhaps one day, when today’s 18 year olds turn 80, the entire UK will get by on Facebook, and maybe then will ‘Democracy UK’ get truly serious. Until then, however, passionate student debates over Facebook will remain just another drop in the ocean of British Democracy.
Article by Ellie Neves. Edited by Kate Banks.