Westminster Parliament, London. Credit: Andrea De Santis, Unsplash.

The degeneration of UK politics for the social media generation

By Eve Zebedee

Eve explores the notion that the increase of the influence of social media over politics has trivialised important conversations and disillusioned young people.

As Rory Stewart mentions in The Rest is Politics, we have a political landscape which favours those who “can keep up pace” with social media, something that ensures politicians’ electability but leaves us with leaders who cannot think through the full consequences of their policies, or lack thereof.

The introduction of Prime Minister “Dishy Rishi” and the scandalous revelation of Matt Hancock’s love affair with a political aide suggests that our love of reality television has now infiltrated the bleak walls of Number 10. Personal lives are often discussed at greater length than benefits and budgets as politicians morph into characters. So, is our love of a topical meme and repeatable soundbite leaving us without the ability to hold politicians accountable?

Understanding the dramatisation of politics is difficult without mentioning Partygate. The events that unfolded certainly rivalled Big Brother, as damning images and reports of a “minor altercation” were bizarrely justified with birthdays and rule confusion. Within politics, memes undoubtedly circle ideas efficiently. The abundance of Partygate coverage left little conclusion other than that Boris Johnson was a liar and needed to go. The ease of communication at our fingertips has influenced mainstream media too; Liz Truss’s stilted interviews on local radio were prompted by public questioning. Political memes succinctly deal with opinions, emotions, and facts. Dealing with complex situations by creating clever commentary told through the eyes of relatable content renders politics far more accessible than the pomp and circumstance of the House of Commons would suggest. We should not underestimate the use of hyperbole in communicating a volatile landscape. Maybe, it is about time the newspapers begin publishing the best meme of the week, as they would a political cartoon. Equally, does constantly scrolling through an onslaught of tweets only give precedent and immunity to incompetence within government as we glance from each flashpoint to the next?  

There is no doubt that social media now plays a significant role in how we vote and how parties interact, with the unfortunate outcome that issues of significance are often not given the space to be debated seriously, whilst more digestible policies are discussed as a distraction. Operation Red Meat employed these jarring tactics, with Nadine Dorries unveiling a plan to defund the BBC as Priti Patel simultaneously announced an unworkable and ultimately unlawful immigration policy. As expected, discussion of the BBC was the topic many felt more qualified to discuss, thus overshadowing the immigration plans. As the amount of information we retain drops with our shortening attention spans, we read political headlines and take them to say what we want. With social media as our primary research tool, we appropriate complex, in-depth issues and opinions into short phrases to roll out as supposed evidence. Repetition and virality are viewed as qualifiers of credibility, quickly leading to indoctrination in certain online spheres.

The Glasgow Guardian spoke to two students, Gowan and Ben, both in their third year of studies, on their views on the impact of social media on politics. When asked about algorithms creating political echo chambers, which trivialise politics, Gowan feels it “depends on which form of social media. On TikTok, I only see a few [videos] I agree with, whereas on Twitter, it’s easier to find a variety of views. In a lot of ways, people make videos that are as much a joke as they are educational, even on very serious political topics. It can be very easy to feel that everyone agrees with you [on TikTok]”. Gowan believed that “a big part of the reason [Twitter] is viewed as more reliable is because it’s not associated with kids”. Ben believes social media has negatively affected their political engagement as politicians increasingly appear to be two-dimensional, as “There’s no nuance- they’re just figures to dislike. Narratives can be inescapable. It’s easier for people to get things either right or wrong about politics, and sort of, not so much involvement, but form their opinions. I think actual politics haven’t changed. People just think they know more”. It was insightful to see how both students had witnessed the simplification of politics in practice and how potentially detrimental short-form media can be to political knowledge, instead promoting homogenous opinion and consensus. 

Political panic has become a well-acquainted emotion, as we have quickly switched from regulated media. Notifications and Twitter threads have replaced the evening news and daily newspaper. With an excess of contradicting information, we lack trust and are obsessed with bias. Somewhere, we believe, there is the truth, and once we find it, we stick to it like glue. Polarisation has been crippling in politics, immobilising us to think critically as we cherish one politician or theory and batter their opposing equivalents. Mainstream media, researched and evidenced, often closely adheres to party politics; it is hard to see how it will impact our everyday lives. Subsequently, we turn to social media to decipher its relevance. It is frustrating that as we attempt to meld our lives on social media and the traditional political processes in parliament, that discourse gets lost and suffers no consequence. The UK’s youthful online generation is the least likely to vote in elections out of any other European country. Perhaps then, our political power feels like it is within the posts we share and not the ballots we mark.


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