With the 2015 general election fast approaching, the UK is turning its eyes ever more towards its politicians – and in whole new ways. Politicians now interact with the populace via Facebook and Twitter, as do many other organisations: the UK Parliament, NHS England, and even the Queen have verified accounts on Twitter. It’s a brave new world, and levels of adoption amongst politicians and institutions are generally quite high, but how much difference is technology actually making to our political landscape?
Looking outwards, a recent study of US citizens by Pew Research Centre found that 28% of registered voters used their phones to follow the recent midterm elections, and that 16% of those questioned followed political figures on social media. These figures were up from 13% and 6% respectively over figures recorded in 2010. An improvement, then, but turning the results on their head, however, means that 72% of voters don’t use social media to follow politics. Whilst engaging with the population via social media may present a forward-thinking and innovative façade to politics, the opt-in nature of our social media environment means that politicians are only reaching those who are already interested in what they have to say – and that’s no way to generate votes.
Technology may impact our political scene in other ways, however, even if one hundred and forty characters don’t quite make the splash they used to. The concept of e-voting has been around for some time, with pilot schemes run here in the UK, as well as in Canada, Norway, Italy, France and Germany – but so far it’s never quite managed to stick. Estonia has been using an e-voting system since 2005, using a smartcard identity system to ensure security, but this year an independently peer-reviewed paper proved that the system is vulnerable to a wide-range of attacks. The general consensus among experts, in fact, is that e-voting is neither feasible nor safe with today’s technology.
In an increasingly digital world, with AI, drones and a paperless NHS on the horizon, it seems as if politics is lagging behind, but what can politicians do? If they fail to engage via contemporary mediums they risk alienating young voters, perhaps disillusioning them with politics for life. If they go too digital too soon they risk losing older voters who may dislike the introduction of technology, and who still make up the largest voting demographic.
It’s a thorny problem, and one with no obvious answer at the time of writing. The use of technology itself has been a key battleground in the run-up to the 2015 election, with Britain’s political parties arguing about public sector IT spend, which is estimated to reach around £7 billion a year – but it may be a long time yet until we see that technology filter through to the political system itself.