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Translating internet activism to the ballot box

With general election expectation mounting, I am intrigued about the people voting for the first time, those in the 18-24 demographic. Many of this group will have recently left secondary education where Citizenship is taught and given growing importance, and some may still attend a youth club.

Most people are aware that the numbers of those voting in elections has been declining and as a democracy this is something that should concern us. The turnout in 2001 was the lowest since the post war election in 1918, with only 59% of those registered voting compared to 76% in 1979. More alarming still, just 46% of young women aged 18-24 cast their vote. Trends show that people under 34 years of age are less likely to vote than older people and there is real concern that lack of engagement with the political process will spread progressively through the electorate as this group ages.

Excepting the fact that a lot of first time voters are influenced by the political affiliations of their parents, how do those newly eligible to vote make their decision? The declining audience share of traditional media would seem to leave them in a weakened position to fill this information gap and new media may still lack the authority to take up the slack.

The sheer diversity of modern media means that attention grabbing is increasingly difficult to achieve. Many young people listen to radio purely for music and with the rise of online streaming the medium’s ability to deliver more serious content to this audience may be reduced. Newspapers would seem to be locked in the process of long term decline and too few young people are developing the newspaper habit. Whilst newspapers are available online, the relationship to paper and the depth of involvement given to traditional newsprint may not translate to the internet.

The March 4th issue of the Economist Technology Quarterly suggests a lack of substance, even superficiality in online youth activism. Citing a recent study by the American think-tank the Pew Research Centre, they point out that internet users aged 18-24 are the least likely of all age groups to e-mail a public official. This same group are, however, the first to use the web to share political news or join political causes on social networks. The suggestion is that this may simply be a case of broadcasting activism to peers. If this is an accurate assessment, and if the young electorate in the UK behave in a similar way, then there may be little translation in political engagement from internet to ballot box.

Services such as BBC iPlayer work well with the scattered attention patterns of many young people; however the increased choice on offer and the ability to be highly selective may weaken the role of television to deliver serious messages. Programmes such as “First Time Voters Question Time” on the BBC are to be welcomed, this group have too little voice in our society, but I wonder how many 18-24s were watching?

There must be a greater role for traditional media to foster democratic participation among the next generation of voters; in the information age the newly enfranchised should surely be better informed than ever before. The question for us all is how to win hearts and minds, not for any particular party but simply for taking part in the precious and hard won electoral process.

One Comment

  1. Alan Scurfield says:

    As the nation awaits the general election just a few days away, the media victor in the hustings is already abundantly clear. Good old telly, battered, fragmented and written off old media, has trounced the new kids on the block. The tone was set by the first televised debate on April 15th which delivered a ten point swing to the Liberal Democrats. The British people showed renewed appetite for politics with 9.4m watching (37% of prime-time audience) and larger than the share of Americans who watched the first round debate between McCain and Obama in 2008. The expected surge to the front for new- media has simply failed to materialise and email,blogging,tweeting and social networking may need to shut the door and have a post race debrief as to why they have been so decisively marginalised in what was heralded to be new-media’s election. It will be particularly interesting to see turnout numbers on May6th and within that the level of younger voters galvinised into action.

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