Engaging young people in politics

Long Live Politics! Technology & New Media To The Rescue?


Technology and new media, the very things that have contributed to a decline in youth political engagement, could potentially be used to kick-start a new era of open and accessible ‘everyday’ democracy that young people can relate to.

Here are four strategies, based on insights from the Millennial Dialogue* project, to get more young people engaged in politics:

  1. Be Radically Transparent
  2. Trust The Wisdom Of Crowds
  3. Visualise Manifestos (With Unambiguous Data)
  4. Stop Getting Social Media Wrong


Be Radically Transparent

Of the millennials who said that they wouldn’t vote in an election tomorrow, a lack of trust (“I don’t trust politicians”) emerged as the top reason for not wanting to vote, applying to 45% of the sample overall (and 54% in Poland). The main reasons why politicians aren’t trusted, which were cited again and again in the qualitative research communities, are because they “don’t keep their promises”, they’re “corrupt” and they’re “only in it for themselves.”

During the ‘imagine that they were starting a new political party’ research activity, the young people taking part were asked to explain how they would let everyone know that their party is real and trustworthy. The overwhelming consensus was that actions speak louder than words.

The best ‘actions speak louder than words’ way to earn the trust of the electorate is, of course, to deliver on pre-election promises. Data from the Millennial Dialogue research shows that political parties who get a reputation for having broken pre-election promises will be severely punished at the next election. Of the UK millennials who voted in 2010, 24% voted for the Liberal Democrats. In the ensuing coalition government negotiations with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats had to abandon their flagship free university tuition fees policy. The millennial generation ridiculed Nick Clegg’s infamous apology and they’ll soon be expressing their anger at ballot box. Of those who are planning to vote next month, just 7% said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats, a massive 17 percentage points down on 2010.

But what can political parties do to build trust when they’re not in government? It was suggested that candidates should “carry out some promises before even being elected, to try and show that they’re not empty or full of rubbish.” It was also argued that parties need strong leaders capable of dealing with bad behaviour by candidates/MPs severely and openly: “complaints would be made accessible publicly online… there should be a zero tolerance policy for any inappropriateness because a strong country is determined by a strong leadership.”

Continuing the ‘open party’ theme, another millennial thought that parties should “publish everything giving unrestricted access to party finances and minutes from EVERY meeting.” Developing that idea, I wonder if the Liberal Democrats could have reduced the backlash against them over tuition fees if they had been able to broadcast the 2010 post-election negotiations with the Conservatives on a live streaming app like Periscope or Meerkat?


Trust The Wisdom Of Crowds

Politics has failed to move with the times. In an era where online access is becoming increasingly commonplace around the world, young people are very much aware of how the internet has changed the way we work, communicate and relate with each other. Even banking, a slow moving and uncompetitive industry where security is paramount, welcomed online technologies back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, yet in 2015 only a handful of countries have introduced online voting. Not only do young people want to be able to vote online once every 4 or 5 years at the election (89% of Canadian millennials think that “secure online voting would encourage more young people to vote”), they want online technologies to kick-start a new era of open and accessible ‘everyday’ democracy.

It was argued in the UK research community that a new political organisation calledThe Pirate Party was “particularly trustworthy as their manifesto was crowd-soured by members of the public.” This idea to use the wisdom of the crowd to build trust in politics was also put forward by a German millennial describing what they would do if they were to start a new political party.

“I would open my party up, make it faster. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute their opinion five minutes before the vote in Parliament, Skype or Twitter – this format really brings a lot of confidence with it, because if everyone has the opportunity to participate, they will really trust the politicians.”

The ‘crowd’ has been proven, across a broad range of disciplines, to be surprisinglyinsightful, accurate and creative. Attitudes towards Wikipedia, arguably one of the biggest crowd sourced projects, help to reveal the disconnect between the generations. While many ‘Baby Boomers’ mourned the demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica and like to point out The 15 Biggest Wikipedia Blunders, millennials know that while Wikipedia isn’t perfect, the model is as good as it gets.

Around the world, there are teams of young coders building software to bring politics in to the 21st century. DemocracyOS, for example, allows citizens to get informed, debate and vote on every single bill presented in Congress. The political elite may try to resist this kind of change – probably by claiming that their citizens are not educated enough to make key decisions – but if they continue to reject new technology then they risk becoming increasingly out of touch.


Visualise Manifestos (With Unambiguous Data)

When the millennials taking part in the research were asked how politics could engage their generation, one of the common themes is that politicians should stop using political jargon and make their communications easier to understand. As one student pointed out in the UK research community, “What average 18 year old is going to sit and read up to 6 different manifestos to see who would be better to vote for? I think they have better things to do!! I sat down to read one of them in 2010 and gave up on page 2 because I didn’t understand any of it.” This doesn’t, however, mean that politicians should dumb down their communications – millennials don’t want to be talked to like children or patronised, they just want a clear and informative message delivered in a more entertaining and enjoyable format.

Another theme running through the research community discussions is politicians’ use of statistics. As part of the UK research, the participants were asked to live-blog their thoughts as they watched the second TV Election Debate. Here are a few of the quotes that referenced the leaders’ usage of statistics:

8.10pm “Ed (Milliband) and Nicola (Sturgeon) mention the NHS and education as key priorities while also reducing other cuts… just wondering how all the books will balance?”

8.18pm: “I really like the Green’s use of solid statistics.”

Half an hour later, one of the UK millennials came up with an idea that was very well received by the other research participants.

8.46pm: “£100bn over what time frame? How about a new rule? Any party proposing a policy must express it as a proportion of annual government spending (£750bn).”

This rule, it was argued, would make it easier to see how the parties differ and which parties have or have not balanced their books. When politicians talk about a £8bn new policy, it’s often not clear what that means. Is it a one off investment over 5 years or an on-going annual expenditure? What impact does that new policy have on all of the other departments?

In the days after the debate, the most insightful research participants were invited to collaborate with researchers from AudienceNet and graphic designers from Data Design to develop their ideas and discuss how technology and new media could be used to turn 70+ page manifestos into something more entertaining, user-friendly and useful/informative (i.e. content that young people would want to share with their friends).

Building on the “express every policy as a proportion of annual government spending” rule, it was suggested that “when parties change pledges to counteract their rivals, it’s hard to keep up – it would be great to see everything put into one place.” When another participant mentioned the income tax pie chart letter sent out to UK taxpayers last year, this led to an idea for an interactive ‘budget visualisation’ website. The one page visualisation dashboard would show the total tax and spend projections with the tax data broken down to show the proportion obtained from each tax type (VAT, income tax etc) and the spending data split by each government department.

When someone pointed out that voters would want to know more than just the top-line total tax/spend proportions, it was proposed that the user would be able to click on a government department (e.g. education) to drill down to the next level of spending (schools, universities etc) and then to have the option to explore more content about the policies for each area. One of the more popular suggestions as to what that content should be was to create a series of animated videos setting out the party’s vision for the future. The participants agreed that the videos should use “accessible language”, “unambiguous data” and the “high-tech, high energy” visual presentation style used by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, whose animated video (about a relatively dry topic: life expectancy and income) – “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – The Joy of Stats” – has been viewed on YouTube more than 6 million times.


Stop Getting Social Media Wrong 

Having heard about the importance of ‘Likes on Facebook’ and ‘Tweeting’, politicians are belatedly joining social media networks. Many of the millennials taking part in the research said that they weren’t ‘following’, ‘liking’, or ‘friends with’ any politicians. Of those who are connected to politicians, their take on how they currently use social media was mixed but generally quite negative. While it was acknowledged that “some of the more successful younger candidates are using social media well and can understand how to use it to its full benefit without appearing like a technophobe or trying too hard to fit it”, the consensus was that most politicians are getting social media wrong.

Millennials find it particularly galling when politicians employ someone else to handle their social media accounts on their behalf.

“Politicians could reach young people through social networks like Facebook using their own profiles and, if at all possible, through PERSONAL (I mean really personal and not from any employees) answers to people’s questions.”

At the other extreme, Gutiérrez Iglesias, the People’s Party mayor of a small town near Madrid called Brunete has been using Whatsapp in an attempt to connect with voters. As part of a “Call me or write to me on my phone!” campaign, he sent his mobile number out to the 10,000 constituents, checks messages at all hours of the day and apparently responds to most messages within minutes. While Whatsapp probably isn’t the best platform for politicians, especially those with larger constituencies, Iglesias’ willingness to listen and respond to his citizens should certainly be applauded. In each research community so far, millennials have repeatedly stressed that the key to successful social media communication is to see it very much as a two-way process, listening and interacting with the people, as opposed to just broadcasting at them as if they were a passive audience.

As one of the Canadian millennials pointed out, as well as using social media to listen and interact, politicians should also try to show a ‘human’ side by sharing things from their life outside of politics.

“I have my local MP as a ‘Facebook friend’. This has been effective marketing for him as it allows him to post about issues and he gets instant feedback. He posts pictures from events he attends which puts him in a positive light. Occasionally, he will also post about very selective personal events, which shows his ‘friends’ that he is a real guy, with a real family – making him more relatable.”

However, there is a balance to be struck here and there is a risk, especially for older politicians, of being seen as trying too hard.

“Politicians could better connect with young people by being open, honest, and by not actively TRYING to connect with them. When a middle aged man is trying hard to be seen as ‘cool’ by young people, it comes across as patronising. They should be themselves and talk honestly about how their party can best represent the needs of young people.”

Several millennials have mentioned Obama’s Reddit AMA as an example of how politicians should be using social media.

“Politicians can reach young people, especially through social media. In the US this is happening now with Reddit AMA (ask me anything). It is important to be in directcontact with young people and to give them the feeling that you are taking their opinions and concerns seriously.”

Hinting perhaps at how inter-connected the world is becoming, the millennials talking independently and unprompted about Obama’s Reddit AMA were from Germany (quoted above), Italy and Canada. The US phase of the research is due to start later this month.

My next blog post – “If Millennials Were In Charge Of Elections” – will cover the electoral reform parts of the Millennial Dialogue research.


* The ‘Millennial Dialogue’ project: on behalf of FEPS and Global Progress,AudienceNet is currently talking to more than 10,000 people aged 15-34, across western democracies, as a means of determining their perspectives around issues of political engagement.

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