Social media and the elections – did it have an impact?

Election night turnoutBefore the European Parliament elections social media was trumpeted as a key method to increase turnout, attract support and build interest (especially among the European political parties). Two weeks on from the elections, we can ask the question – did it have an impact?

Social media offers politicians and voters an unparalleled level of direct access to each other. The former use it in the hope of mobilising support – although whether it attracts new support is a moot point (many people follow people with whose views they already identify). Fortunately, social media also produces large amounts of data that allow us to study its impact in greater detail.

We’ll focus on turnout. Decades of declining voter turnout was brought to an end (albeit marginally). But did social media have an impact?

We could perhaps look for a correlation between countries with high levels of social media activity surrounding the election (weighted by the total population regularly using social media) and increased turnout – but no such correlation seems to exist.

There was significant online chatter about the elections in France, Finland and Spain, all of which saw turnout increase. But similar activity did not increase turnout in Italy (although, at 60 per cent, it was higher than in many other countries). Despite more limited social media discussion of the elections in Lithuania and Greece, turnout increased there more than anywhere else.

There are, however, a significant number of studies showing that, at least in other elections, social media does matter immensely. One study in the United States involving 61 million Facebook users found that people were more likely to vote if they saw a message showing their friends had voted (using the ‘I voted’ button).

Facebook used a similar tool in these elections and the ‘I voted’ message was seen by nearly 90 million people (although how many were eligible to vote is not clear). The American study showed only a modest increase in the likelihood of voting – 0.4 per cent – but given that turnout in the European elections increased by only 0.1 per cent, it may have played a role in reversing the tide of apathy.

Ultimately, the scale of the discussions generated across various social media, and not just Facebook, bears testament to success of candidates and institutions in getting people interested.

We have tracked just under three million tweets about the elections. More than a million tweets about the elections (not just using the ‘official’ #EP2014 hashtag) were sent during the week of the elections, with around half of those sent on Sunday 25 May. This is not as many tweets as were sent about the Indian elections, but the point is that hundreds of thousands of messages about the polls were reaching millions of people via social media.

Moreover, journalists and others with influence outside social media used the channel and, in turn, shared what they found on other platforms (something Europe Decides did in following the selection of candidates from across Europe and the election campaign).

The Parliament has published some top-line statistics, such as 11 million views of its elections video. And overall, it would be hard to argue that all that discussion did not raise awareness about the elections, increase interest and improve turnout.

Now the trick will be for MEPs and the institutions to harness the engagement and continue to inform and exchange with citizens via social media. Questions of democracy and legitimacy do not, after all, end at the ballot box, but in the actions taken in voters’ names.

Marek Zaremba-Pike