With just a few days until the UK General Election, TenEighty looks at the recent trend of politicians working with YouTubers and how mainstream media has (or hasn’t) reacted to it.
Towards the end of 2014 a new political event designed to give young people a voice took place: Leaders Live. Organised by Bite the Ballot (a non-for-profit, party-neutral movement) Leaders Live saw each of the main party leaders* engage in an unscripted debate with YouTubers and young people (or as Bite The Ballot calls them ‘digital influencers’).
*All of the main party leaders, but one: David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister and leader of the Conservative party.
When TenEighty caught up with Bite the Ballot’s managing director, Michael Sani, he told us that the reason young people are disenfranchised with politics is because they’ve never been inspired to participate. “No effort is made in school to engage [young] people and allow them to shape their own democratic journey,” he said.
“This plays nicely into the way governments make disproportionate cuts on young people because they know there is no risk of being punished.”
While Leaders Live wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, it was something that provided young people the opportunity to voice their concerns and helped start them on their own democratic journeys. Furthermore, it utilised the medium that most young people know best: the internet.
But did it get any press? Some, but barely any.
When David Cameron pulled out of his Leaders Live appearance there were reports from the Mirror, the Independent and ITV News (who helped produce Leaders Live). Nonetheless, this story was overshadowed by the PM’s ducking and diving over the national TV debates. Once again the voices of young people were lost in the overarching political storyline.
It’s clear that David Cameron and his Conservative party simply don’t want to face the questions of young people; they have no plan to try and engage them.
The only time Cameron has shown up to a youth-facing debate was with Radio 1, and that wasn’t much of a success for the PM. Young people held Cameron to greater account at that one debate than any journalist thus far, with exchanges like this.
Unlike the Conservatives however, Labour, Greens, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats have attempted to engage with young people via the internet, most notably through YouTube.
The Green Party’s political broadcast was designed to be watched on YouTube and shared online. Was creating a boy band out of the other political parties a bit of a gimmick? Certainly, but it showed that the Greens have a sense of humour about themselves and others. A sense of humour that is routed in internet culture and appealing to the younger generation of voters.
Outside of YouTube, three Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat have taken part in Bite the Ballot’s round table discussions with the likes of YouTube’s Hannah Witton, Myles Dyer, Leena Normington, Rosianna Halse Rojas and Lewis Parker. The videos were hosted on Facebook (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
As for Twitter, it’s clear that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is the only one that knows how to utilise her account in an engaging way. She has used it to debunk stories before they’ve hit the press. She’s also live-tweeted her answers to questions during TV debates she wasn’t invited to and made a notable effort to directly respond to tweets about her.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 1, 2015
@NicolaSturgeon AARGH…why can't you just use Twitter for automated retweets like a normal politician?
— Libby Brooks (@libby_brooks) April 27, 2015
But, once again, does any of this get press? Some, but barely any.
What has received press coverage then? Ed Miliband appearing in a video with Russell Brand.
On 28 and 29 April, a wealth of mainstream press – The Sun, Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Guardian, and Daily Star to name a few – ran front page stories about the collaboration. Headlines included ‘Monster Raving Labour Party’, ‘Do you really want this clown ruling us?’, ‘Red Ed and Brand talk total ballots’, and ‘Mili-Brand!’
— Russell Brand (@rustyrockets) April 28, 2015
Miliband’s appearance was part of Russell’s politics week for his on-going, online series The Trews, which also featured Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party. The other party leaders, including David Cameron, turned down the opportunity to take part, instead using Miliband’s appearance as a way to trash his name.
Like him or not, Russell’s is a voice that has engaged and impassioned hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people with respect to UK politics. The media constantly berate him for telling people not to vote, yet despite this he continues to keep his audience informed on political issues. His is one of many voices that represent how the youth are feeling.
And the platform he uses? YouTube. Russell is a YouTuber. And as the media pass him off as an idiot, they ultimately mock all YouTubers and their audiences; young people.
Why didn’t Ed Miliband’s appearance in a video with Niki and Sammy get half as much press coverage? The only press it did get was the Daily Mail trashing all of them with the headline ‘why is Ed such a goof with yoof’.
Where is the front page news story for all or any of the Bite The Ballot projects, be it Leaders Live, roundtable discussions or National Voter Registration Day? It seems to us that on the rare occasion that something does get mentioned by the mainstream zeitgeist it is either mocked or dismissed.
All of the papers ran with this quote from David Cameron: “Let Ed Miliband hang out with Russell Brand. He is a joke. This is not funny. This is about the election. This is about our future, this is about jobs. I haven’t got time to hang out with Russell Brand. This is more important. These are real people.”
No, it’s not funny. Young people are equally important too. Russell – along with YouTubers such as Louise, Niki and Sammy, Hannah, Myles, Leena, Rosianna and Lewis – are the voice of young people trying to engage in politics. They are not a joke. These are real people.
Between Niki and Sammy, Louise, and Russell alone, Ed has reached an audience of well over 3 million people. While a lot of those people may not be based here in the UK, it is impossible to dismiss those numbers. Many of them will be young potential voters who are now more inclined to vote Labour because Ed has taken the time to talk to them.
Why do you think the #milifandom happened? On the face of it, it’s just young people ‘being funny’ by photoshopping pictures of Ed and pretending (well, most of the time) to have a crush on him. Underneath it all, it’s because young people feel like he’s the only politician who will engage with them.
Ed has been turned into an internet meme by us. And while that may seem silly to the older generations, it is one of the highest forms of praise you can get from the youth of today. (And attempting to launch your own version – ahem, the #cameronettes – is one of the highest insults back to us!)
It’s true that our generation is far from exempt from propaganda – just because you Google something, doesn’t make it true – but most young people are smart enough not to trust what they read in the papers or see on TV. And if, as Michael Sani suggested, young people are apathetic towards politics because they’ve never been inspired to participate, then mainstream press is the main weapon that is used against us to keep us disenfranchised.
The internet is where we are engaged. We watch YouTubers, read blogs and are vocal across social media about our thoughts and beliefs. And while it could all just be a PR stunt to win votes, at least Ed is attempting to engage with us. We are not a joke. We are real people; our voices and opinions matter just as much as everyone else’s.
Missed our coverage of the Leaders Live debates?
Find out what the YouTubers thought after the debates happened, alternatively, read our reports on how each debate went down:
For further analysis on the Russell Brand and Ed Miliband collaboration, check out this article from The Guardian’s Owen Jones.
Update 5 May 2015:
Louise Pentland’s interview with Ed Miliband has been added to the article following its release and the mention of the video in the text has had its tense amended accordingly.