By Areeq Chowdhury.
The 2017 snap general election was called to bring about a “strong and stable” government but as we know, this did not quite go to plan with the incumbent Conservative government losing their existing majority. They will now form a minority government with help from the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. But what was it that swung this election from a foregone outcome to yet another shock democratic result?
The fingers have been pointed at the so-called “youth-quake”, a weak Conservative manifesto, and towards the rise of the Corbynistas, but what about the role of tech? This election shaped the future and was shaped by it. Every method of participating in this election, except for voting itself, was feasible from the palm of our hands on our smartphones. You could register to vote online, watch a live rally online, swap your vote online, and much, much more. Here’s my take on it all.
Online voter registration
In June 2014, the coalition government introduced online voter registration for the first time, as part of the move towards individual electoral registration. It replaced the previous paper and postal registration method and the Conservative Minister announcing it at the time, Greg Clark, described the reform as making it “easier, simpler, and faster for people to register to vote.”
The link ‘gov.uk/register-to-vote’ was shared countless times across social media by institutions, organisations, and celebrities as diverse and high profile as Emma Watson (24.8 million followers), Stormzy (712,000 followers), and Gary Lineker (6.13 million followers).
The deadline day for voter registration saw 622,000 people apply to join the electoral register, smashing the previous record on the deadline day for last year’s EU referendum (485,000). On the deadline day, 99% of voter registration applications were made online instead of by paper. In total, an estimated 2.5 million people applied to join the electoral register since the snap general election was called. More than a million of them were young people.
Would we have seen such huge numbers if people still had to register by post? I doubt it.
Voter advice applications
In recent years, a major democratic decision feels like an annual tradition, and with that tradition has come the explosion of so-called ‘voter advice applications’ or VAAs. These are websites, or apps, that help the user decide which party they most align with and helps inform them about the policies of different political parties.
Many of these popped up for the recent election despite the short notice and surprise nature of the election. These include Vote for Policies, ISideWith, Who Should You Vote For, Represent.me, and GE2017.com, amongst many others. These mainly take the form of quizzes with users answering a range of questions and then being presented with a result at the end stating which political party they most align with. Again, similar to the voter registration website, links to these VAAs were shared widely across social media by celebrities and media outlets. A video by the fictional comedic news reporter, Jonathan Pie, directing viewers to the Vote for Policies website, was watched 1.6 million times on Facebook.
GE2017.com, a VAA founded by two young entrepreneurs, Jeremy Evans (25) and Matt Morley (23), broke the record with more than 2 million people using their website in the run up to the election. GE2017.com went viral before the voter registration deadline with a tool to help students see whether their vote would have more impact in their home or university constituency. They then followed this up with a quiz which showed users which parties they matched with, and how to vote tactically, vote swap, or even spoil their ballot. They gained mass usage by partnering up with platforms and outlets which already have huge reach online such as UniLad, the Tab, and LBC.
I spent a good ten minutes or so with one of the founders of GE2017.com a few weeks ago at Newspeak House, trying to think of a creative way to slip the word ‘meme’ into a political term to sum up how this was the election of memes. The best I think we came up with was “Meme-ber of Parliament”. Not sure how well that works. But it’s beyond doubt that this was the most meme-filled election.
It’s a difficult word to define, but Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘an image, video, piece of text etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users.’ To go through them all would be a blogpost in itself, but the reach and significance of memes is undeniable and much greater in many respects than the traditional political cartoon.
One page on Facebook, Joe.co.uk, which has 4.7 million likes, produced a ‘snap election trailer’ based on the Avengers starring Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, with cameos from Tim Farron and Boris Johnson. This was watched 3.5 million times. Another video they produced entitled ‘No one spits bars like Jeremy Corbzy’ starring Jeremy Corbyn in Stormzy’s ‘Shut up’ video has been viewed 8.6 million times. This kind of reach would be beyond the wildest dreams of any political cartoonist and in this day and age is being achieved within a matter of weeks.
Another Corbyn-related digital democracy innovation, was the creation of the game ‘CorbynRun’ in which a pixelated cartoon Jeremy Corbyn takes on tax-dodgers and Conservatives such as Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. Success in the game unlocks manifesto pledges such as ‘free university tuition fees’ and was targeted at voters between the age of 18 and 34. The game was inspired by a similar game about the left-wing French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Melanchon, and received more than one million impressions. Over 100,000 people downloaded the game on their phones.
Tactical voting, or voting for parties other than the one you truly support in order to prevent a party you dislike from winning, has often cropped up at elections, however it has never been more coordinated than it was this year.
Spearheaded by anti-hard-Brexit campaigner, Gina Miller, the group Best for Britain embarked on a huge tactical voting campaign across the UK aiming to encourage voters to vote against candidates who support a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. In addition to supporting 36 specific candidates with donations and campaign support and another 100 candidates with targeted social media adverts, the group created an online ‘tactical voting dashboard’. The dashboard allowed users to enter their postcode and recommended a particular candidate to vote for who would be anti-hard-Brexit. The tool had more than half a million unique users.
Less high-tech versions of this were floating around too including a Google spreadsheet which went viral telling users how to vote against the Conservative Party, and later evolved into the website tactical2017.com. Another similar website, ‘stopthetori.es’ also went viral during the election campaign.
Another website, swapmyvote.uk, aimed to tackle the ‘wasted votes’ in UK elections which they claim is due to the existing first-past-the-post system. The Swap My Vote platform acted against this and used social media to partner up voters in different constituencies to swap their votes with each casting each other’s preferred votes where it counts the most. The founder, Tom de Grunwald, told the Independent that tens of thousands of people vote-swapped in the 2015 General Election and predicted that it would be even more popular this time around. Another similar platform making the rounds was VoterAlliance.co.uk.
A digital by default democracy
It is clear that the role of digital campaigning is no longer limited to purely targeted ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, although we did see plenty of that. I am sure that more will be written about all of the areas discussed above, and there is so much more that I haven’t even touched upon, but the scale and creativity of communication that the internet provides is evidently significant. The internet is helping to engage the masses and if there is a trend to be found, it’s that democracy is becoming digital by default.
Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.