Politicians are increasingly under pressure to engage with their constituents online. Some engage via social media. Some don’t. Some are blogging. Some aren’t. In the run up to this year’s general election in the UK, I was researching whether a blog would prove to be a useful way for politicians to get young people engaged…
Political communication theory typically ignores the use of social media, particularly blogging by political representatives as a means by which to engage their constituents. For my dissertation I examined the use of political blogs by both bloggers and readers, specifically studying the potential effectiveness of political blogs as a means by which political representatives (MPs) can engage young people in the UK in politics. The key aim of the research was to measure the extent to which the ends justify the means.
I conducted a survey with young people aged 16-24 and set up three focus groups within the same age bracket. I also interviewed a social media expert, an online political communication expert, an expert in socialising young people into politics, an MP who has won several awards for blogging and an MP who has no online presence whatsoever.
Two-way communication or soliloquy?
Blogs are becoming increasingly popular in the UK with political blogs dominating a significant proportion of the blogosphere. Political blogs have the ability to spark change. Readers can influence political debates, critique policies and ideas and participate in conversation with MPs who blog. When bloggers involve their readers in conversation and consider their views, it is potentially a huge step forward in terms of two-way political communication.
However in practice, the experts interviewed were doubtful that bloggers would have the time to engage with all who comment on their blogs or that it would make any valuable difference if they did. Also, survey results from the study showed that on a scale of effectiveness from 0-5, young people placed political blogging in the middle in terms of improving communication between political representatives and their constituents. Focus group respondents suggested that this result can be interpreted as ‘it depends’, which was characterised by this comment: “I think if they were interesting and applied to us we would read them”.
Politics is cool…right?
Young people are particularly active online, arguably as a result of the introduction of social networking, an activity which many spend the bulk of their time online participating in. With the lack of young people currently engaged in politics, it is possible that political blogs are a channel through which to engage with this audience and encourage them to become more active in political debate. The fact is that whilst young people may be online and viewing blogs, the ease by which they can access political blogs is not enough to encourage them to do so.
The study’s survey results showed that 22% of young people perceive political blogs as ‘full of lies’, whilst a further 22% perceive them as ‘boring’, and 19% see them as confusing.
In practical terms, young people need to be able to find as well as trust and understand political blogs in order to engage with them. The research showed conclusively that young people are most likely to be directed to political blogs via social media. This was summarised by an online political communication expert in an interview: “As far as political blogging goes, users have the best chance of seeing links retweeted by their friends or shared as status updates and wall posts in Facebook – but it depends on how politically interested their friends are to make it an efficient way to reach them” .
Young people can be divided into three categories in terms of their likelihood to engage with political blogs. Those in the first category are already interested in politics and are therefore highly likely to follow political blogs of interest and may engage in conversation. Those in the second group are interested but not currently engaged in politics, and are likely to read political blogs only when individual blog posts are of particular interest or relevance to them. Those in the third group are disengaged in national politics and are unlikely to choose to read political blogs unless the subject is directly relevant to their lives or about their local community.
In summary, the more engaged in politics the young person is already, the more likely they are to engage in political blogging.
More trouble than it’s worth?
A huge amount of information is available online and so the popularity of individual blogs relies heavily on content. As there are no requirements for MPs to blog, some have adopted the view that it is not worthwhile to put valuable time and effort into creating and maintaining a popular political blog just for the chance that it will engage with a wider audience when they have more pressing issues to deal with.
Also, with reference to the importance of political blogs for communicating with constituents, both MPs interviewed for the study were in agreement that “they [blogs] should not become a substitute for public meetings and discussions with individual constituents”.
The study found that whether an MP chooses to blog depends upon several aspects of their professional lives including time constraints and party positions. It also depends on personal preferences in terms of how they prefer to communicate. An MP who has a successful blog said: “I think it has to be optional. They don’t all have the skills, they don’t all have the time, and you don’t want MPs just to be party spokespeople”. Both of the MPs interviewed acknowledged blogging as an effective way to reach their young constituents, but neither aim to engage young people specifically.
An advantage of blogging is that it allows politicians to engage in conversation with constituents and other interested parties worldwide on a personal level, but it seems that some politicians are not comfortable openly discussing party policies online. A danger with blogging, which the MPs interviewed for the study pointed out, is that anything written on a blog may be picked up by the national media or could be considered inappropriate by political parties.
The bottom line
The findings of the study prove that political blogging can be a worthwhile tool for engaging young people in politics on the condition that the blogger writes in a way that is interesting, relevant, and understood by the audience and also on the condition that the blogger is in a position to blog regularly without sacrificing other more important political responsibilities.
Bethany Ansell has recently finished studying BA (Hons) PR & Communication at Southampton Solent University and currently writes news articles for www.dorchesterpeople.co.uk. She has not yet received her degree results but would like to work in corporate PR at a London agency. Her blog can be found at http://www.out-of-interest.blogspot.com.