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Not the Sun Wot Won it: Social Media and the Election

16 Jun 2017

Associate Research Fellow and BBC Producer Rosie Dawson reflects on the changing media landscape and the influence of social media in the recent General Election.

A hundred years after Edmund Burke said that there were four estates of the realm – the Lords Spiritual, Temporal, the Commons and the press – Oscar Wilde was complaining that the first three estates had been gobbled up by the fourth.

And now the fourth estate (which you could say has done a pretty good job of eating away at itself with scandals such as phone hacking) is being gobbled up by the fifth – social media.

If it was the Sun wot won it for the Tories in 1992, it was social media which last week dashed Theresa May’s hopes for a landslide in the General Election and made Jeremy Corbyn the darling of a parliamentary party which had been desperate to get rid of him only weeks earlier. 88% of young people are on Facebook, and Labour ‘s online campaign to get the vote out resulted in more than 2 million of them registering to vote before the deadline; it also had a positive inclusive twitter hashtag #forthemany, promoted celebrity endorsements and used social media to counter reporting from sections of the mainstream press it perceived as hostile. Corbyn factors aside, Labour’s success at the polls was largely down to its grasp of the role that social media plays in delivering news and other content to young people.

A survey from Reuter’s institute for the study of journalism revealed recently that 44% of people consume news via Facebook, and 10% use Twitter. 28% per cent of 18-24 year-olds say social media is their main news source. The report noted that people who access the news online are more likely to trust a story that comes to them via a share from a friend rather directly from the news provider. This – and the fact that many of the stories they read will be delivered to them by algorithms based on their previous viewing habits – creates the “echo chamber” in which their own opinions are amplified and alternative views drowned out. There is a lot of legitimate concern about this, although it could be argued that similar allegations about lack of balance can be levelled against traditional media outlets.

Social media is a sharing platform, not a content provider. At the same time as it is used to undermine dictatorships, get around government censors and give a voice to the voiceless, it also allows those who shout the loudest to shout even louder and makes it harder for its users to identify the sources of what they come across, hold publishers to account and tell truth from lies.

The “Fourth estate” still produces most of the serious news content read by online audiences – even if  they are not paying for it. High quality journalism is under threat from the economy of the web.

So how do we create a demand for this, particularly among young people who aren’t used to getting their fingers grubby with newsprint and are accustomed to having their news served up 24/7, hot and algorithmically?

One of the things we might do, assuming some of you share my prejudices, is to check the knee jerk  response that occurs in education where an A level student or undergraduate is taking Media Studies. “Pulp education,” Niall Ferguson once called it – a Mickey Mouse subject for students who haven’t the aptitude for proper arts subjects such as English or History.

This is a view sadly given some weight by a visitor to the Student Room, an online forum for current and prospective university students:

“I’m applying (to university) next year and was thinking about doing media studies since I don’t have the A levels to do anything else. I am mildly interested as well. So should I?”

Recently, my daughter’s English homework was to watch a Youtube clip of a horror film and discuss the effectiveness of the panning and top shots, cut-aways – and other terms I didn’t learn until I went into television. I had to bite my lip and not mention the Merchant of Venice, but actually these skills of knowing how visual media is constructed and how audiences are manipulated to respond in certain ways and believe certain things are exactly the kind of analytical skills young people need. Similarly, in History she is already being asked to judge between different sources for events, assess their vested interests, appreciate the role of money and ownership, and understand the appeal of a conspiracy theory,

Among the various literacies we worry about these days, I would suggest media literacy needs to be top of the agenda.

The Oxford dictionary’s word of the year in 2016  was “Post-truth” – ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. There needs to be space within the curriculum to understand not only the nature of news provision but also the role that emotion and experience play in forming our beliefs and influencing our behaviour, including the decisions we make at the ballot box.

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