The content you see below was taken as evidence for the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee (@HLDemoDigital) evidence for their “Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust” Report.
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Throughout my PhD examination of British political parties campaigns on Facebook from 2010-2019, it is clear that social media has brought to the fore a whole new body of individuals who are engaged with politics but who reject official membership. In my examinations of this new force of ‘virtual members’, followers and supporters of the parties on Facebook are younger and more representative of the British public than official membership. Graph 1 shows that the huge body of virtual memberships for both party and leader pages accounts for 8,800,000 potential individuals, vastly above the near 1,000,000 members accounted for via official membership.
Graph 1 – 2019 Virtual memberships of party and leader pages, alongside official membership data
This new found online support undermines many scholars’ previous assertions that we are seeing ‘the decline of parties’, with many bemoaning the decline in official membership. However, it is clear that although official membership has declined, that online virtual membership via following political parties has vastly increased. Social media and the internet has rejuvenated parties, with new bodies of younger and highly active online support. The key difference however is that these virtual members’ engagement and activity primarily occurs online and not offline. This fact has led many to fail to appreciate the democratic renewal that is taking place.
Although not a revolutionary force yet, Facebook offers parties and the public a genuine new avenue for political engagement that is a force for good. The fluidity that social media offers has opened up political interest and activism in demographics that are traditionally less engaged, such as young people. While parties rigid structures of membership are now rightly being recast to appreciate the power of social media in how parties can organise support, inform the public, democratise their policy systems and open up politics to a wider body of the public. Overall digital technology has had a major positive effect on British parties over the last decade.