Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
As the BBC exit poll was published, social media feeds filled with dread of the coming apocalypse. From keyboards and smartphones, people lashed out at the Conservatives, and the supposed callousness and stupidity of their voters. Some demanded that Conservative supporters are ideologically purged from their lists of friends and followers. These sentiments have been echoed among the nation’s commentators: Kevin Maguire of The Mirror wrote of “gloop-brained voters”, who were “frightened into sticking the Tory nasty nurse for fear of something worse”.
Whilst social media has dramatically lowered the cost of communication, political debate is not necessarily engaged. Research from Facebook found that, by ranking news feeds, users in the United States were limited in their ideological exposure:
We find that after ranking, there is on average slightly less cross-cutting content: conservatives see approximately 5% less cross-cutting content compared to what friends share, while liberals see about 8% less ideologically diverse content.
Nevertheless, the study concluded:
Regardless, our work suggests that the power to expose oneself to perspectives from the other side in social media lies first and foremost with individuals.
If someone says that they can’t ‘understand why a person would vote Conservative’, as even parliamentary candidates have expressed, or they disbelieve that anyone would vote Labour, then they have not discussed politics enough. Whilst it could be the platform for racuous debate, social media has often been the circle of mirrors for our own opinions.
It is worth making an honest appraisal of the efficacy of your digital strategies. An inchoate rant, overwhelming with swearing and hatred, against “Tory c***s” or “Tory scum” may reap some Facebook likes or WordPress stars. Broadcaster Charlie Brooker’s statement against the Conservatives was also shared:
The Conservative party is an eternally irritating force for wrong that appeals exclusively to bigots, toffs, money-minded machine men, faded entertainers and selfish, grasping simpletons who were born with some essential part of their soul missing.
Unless readers are to respond like a Pavlovian dog, it is doubtful whether such posts are genuinely convincing to those considering voting Conservative, or any other party. Indeed, these posts may only bolster existing views. Arguing from assumed moral supremacy, and fulminating with hatred at those who have the temerity to dissent, is similarly ineffective.
By refusing to engage and be exposed to our political opponents, we forego the opportunity to supplant ignorance with knowledge, replace rhetoric with reason and correct error with truth. From the clash of debate, our own arguments are refined, refashioned and reforged. Moreover, these sharper arguments can be employed in future discussions, whether online or out on the doorsteps, canvassing potential voters.
Democracy, regardless of the electoral system, is the agreement to be ruled by a government chosen by your peers. Understanding those voters, rather than believing they are sub-human, is the key to winning them over to our preferred political positions.