2017 was the first online media election. Let’s look at what this means for democracy

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 29th June 2017

According to recent research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2017 was the first general election where online news over took TV as the most popular source of news. But whilst this means that people can get their news from a wider variety of sources, it also opens up new terrain for our democracy.

With the rise of online news, there is more information out there than ever. But at the same time, as people are gaining new ways to find out information, they are still feeling ill-informed.

During the EU referendum campaign, we looked at how people felt about the campaign itself. A week before the referendum just 33% said they felt well informed or very well informed about the issues. Meanwhile 28% said they were poorly informed or very poorly informed.

But this lack of information was not caused by people not being uninterested.

A full two months before the vote 69% said they were interested or very interested in the campaign. The eventual voter turnout of 72% – the highest turnout in a UK-wide ballot since the 1992 general election – underlines this point. The following snap general election’s 68.7% turnout once again proves that this wasn’t a one-off.

There is obvious a thirst for clear and trust-worthy information that it seems the public felt the traditional media were not sating. But the corresponding shift online brings up new challenges.

For a political debate to happen citizens need a shared set of information to work from. For all its flaws, a national media can deliver this. But the growth of hyper partisan sites targeted at supporters of just one side of a debate means that it becomes far harder to reach a common understanding of a problem – or indeed that many people simply aren’t hearing the ‘other’ side at all.

And while even trained journalists do make mistakes, there are mechanisms and codes of practice for putting it right in print and on broadcast. You can complain to Ofcom or IPSO, but there is no online equivalent to either of these bodies.

For example – broadcast journalism is regulated to ensure there is balance, but there’s a risk that the move to online electioneering resembles something of a ‘wild west’ – a rules-free zone, with all the corresponding dangers for civilised, pluralist democratic debate. But even if there was, the landscape has moved far beyond the traditional boundaries of journalistic ethics.

Fake news sites are another part of this – a step beyond hyper-partisan blogs. Using political stories to make a quick profit, rather than to influence the political debate, many of these sites operate with impunity, without concern for the damage they do to our democracy. When that becomes the case, the issue of political debate is not just that people are coming at problems from different positions – but that the problem may not even exist at all.

Being able to identify real issues that need solutions, then engage in meaningful debate around them is crucial to a modern democracy. To do this we should look at how we good, honest reporting and debate online – in sum, how we can make life easier for those who care about our democracy.

Though it feels like early days, unless we think now about how to support good journalism in the online sphere, the online wild west will be left to the cowboys.

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