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Is this the year of the social election?

Social media is often thought of as a place reserved for sharing photographs of cute animals and funny videos of people falling over. And although these can be found with ease, Twitter and Facebook have proved time and time again that they are vital marketing tools, helping businesses and organisations maximise profit and increase brand profile.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that political parties have been harnessing the power of social and digital media to get people off computers and into polling stations. As well as the traditional newsletters, television debates and interviews, the main parties have been using technology as a platform to display and discuss policies.

Research has found that 45% of Twitter users aged 18 to 34 said they had become interested in or even joined a party that they learned about through the social site. Another 37% admitted to using the micro-blogging platform to research the major parties in the run up to the general election on May 7, which definitely proves the power of 140 characters.

Web pages and digital tools have also helped confused and less tribal voters figure out which party would best represent their views and opinions with various online quizzes and surveys pairing off individuals with a suitable party after answering a few simple questions.

If we judge the outcome on the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, the Tories would come out on top. However, it has been revealed that the party in blue spend £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising, outspending the Labour party by a multiple of ten. This could mean that the social media figures do not accurately represent the opinion of the public.

Although it seems that the Tories have deeper pockets, Labour used their social media presence more wisely. A seemingly innocent ‘How Common is Your Name?’ quiz went viral on Facebook, however embedded in the post was a subtle message encouraging participants to vote. Once users had taken the quiz, their email address was automatically entered into the Labour database. The party managed to collect a large number of data without spending huge amounts of money, leaving the Conservatives red in the face.

Although social media won’t be solely responsible for any party’s win or loss, it is an essential platform for politicians to reach a mass audience. One of the most beneficial elements is that the internet provides an open space for political advertising, which is banned on television and radio in the UK.

Ultimately, the most important function of social media in this election has been to encourage people to register to vote as more than 15 million people never made it to the ballot box in 2010 when the winning party only amassed two thirds of that figure.

In the run up to the deadline to register on April 20 Twitter sent out a reminder to its UK users urging them to get signed up and we will find out after May 7 what effect this may have had on turnout and ultimately the outcome of the election. But whichever way you look at it, social media is definitely playing a positive role in the democratic process.