Getting Millennials to the ballot box: The potential of social media?


In last week’s blog we showed how important Millennials are to the Remain campaign: they make up one in three ‘Remainers’, and also make up the largest chunk of ‘Committed Remainers’ who will most likely vote to stay in the EU on polling day. Once we take into account the fact that most voters – and Millennials – have already made up their mind about how to vote (or not to vote at all), and the key role Millennials will play in determining the outcome of the referendum is clear.

Our blog also showed that while the Remain campaign has plenty to be happy about when it comes to their support among young people, a key challenge they face is in getting the Millennials to actually vote on 23rd June. While most – 70% – are likely to vote, this is notably lower than the 85% of older, more Eurosceptic generations who are likely to vote. Moreover, one in five Millennials are largely disengaged from the referendum altogether. Here, we consider the potential of what is often considered to be a ‘silver bullet’ in getting young people engaged with politics – already being deployed by the Electoral Commissionahead of the referendum – to help the Remain campaign in their cause: social media.

In our survey we asked respondents which sources of media were the most important to them for getting information about the referendum. The two most important sources of information – for people of all ages – is television and newspapers. 83% of all respondents (and 70% of Millennials) identified television as a major source of information, and almost half identified it as the main source. 66% identified newspapers as a major source, as did 59% of Millennials. For all the claims that social media is the key to reaching young people about politics, the fact is that the more traditional outlets of television and newspapers are still more important for most of them.

46% of Millennials identified social media as important sources of information, ranking it fourth in terms of importance to them overall (television, newspapers, and online news sites such as Buzzfeed). This compares with one in five people in older generations. While social media is certainly not the dominant source of information, it is an important one for the Millennials, and substantially more important to them than it is for older people. At first glance, therefore, social media might be a good way to get more Millennials voting in the referendum.

If, however, we look at the groups of Millennials for which social media is particularly important as a news source, things get more complicated.

If, however, we look at which Millennials are using social media as an important source of information, this conclusion is exposed as simplistic. The table below shows the proportion of Millennials and older voters who use various sources of media for information about the referendum, broken down into four categories of voters introduced in the previous blog: Committed voters have decided how they will vote and are very likely to turnout; Uncommitted voters are likely to vote but not certain of which side they will vote for; Possible voters may vote but will likely need a nudge; and Unengaged voters are very unlikely to vote or to take an interest in the referendum.

Table One: Main Sources of Media Information by Generation and Voter Group
Millennials Only Committed Uncommitted Possible Unengaged
Blog 9% 11% 15% 13%
Social media 45% 40% 49% 59%
Newspaper (print or website) 62% 61% 48% 52%
Online news site (e.g., Buzzfeed) 61% 57% 45% 42%
Television 66% 71% 77% 75%
Radio 31% 36% 42% 34%
Other 23% 21% 18% 16%
Older generations Committed Uncommitted Possible Unengaged
Blog 5% 4% 6% 8%
Social media 20% 16% 31% 34%
Newspaper (print or website) 71% 69% 53% 55%
Online news site (e.g., Buzzfeed) 36% 34% 29% 34%
Television 84% 91% 90% 83%
Radio 57% 62% 58% 54%
Other 25% 23% 27% 29%

Source: Weighted data from the Young People and the EU Survey, YouGov

There is a clear relationship between the importance of social media as a source of news and low levels of engagement with the referendum. 59% of Unengaged Millennials, for example, use social media as a key source of information (and one in five use it as their main source), compared with 45% of the highly engaged Committed Millennials. Social media is also a more prominent source of the Unengaged Millennials’ news overall; it is the second most important source of news for this group (behind television), compared with being the fourth most important (behind television, newspapers and online news websites) for Committed Millennials.

The fact that those Millennials who are least likely to be engaged with the referendum are the ones most likely to be dependent on social media poses a problem for those wishing to use social media to boost their interest. This is because the news people receive through social media, far more than other sources, is dictated by pre-existing political preferences and social networks. If an individual does not like the news they see Facebook or Twitter, or they don’t agree with the opinions being expressed, they can simply unfollow or block the source. If they aren’t particularly interested in politics – or the referendum – they can easily avoid material about it. Similarly, as previous research by WISERD Education has shown, people who rely on social media for political news tend to develop agendas and attitudes which are already shared with their peers and social networks. Social media is not, in short, particularly effective at challenging or changing previously held convictions and beliefs. Those Millennials who are uninterested in politics and the referendum are highly unlikely to become more engaged as a result of efforts made through social media. The importance of social media as a source of referendum news for the Unengaged Millennials’ is more likely to be a symptom of their apathy than an opportunity to challenge their lack of interest.

This doesn’t mean that social media cannot be utilised to some beneficial effect to engage younger voters by the Remain and Leave campaigns. As the table shows, social media is an important source of information for more engaged Millennials as well; the campaigns could make good use of it to try and persuade the Uncommitted Millennials to back their side, or to encourage the Possible Voters to actually turnout. These Millennials already have an interest in politics and are therefore far more likely to be receptive to information received through social media. The key point is that we need to be realistic in our expectations of what social media can achieve for engaging young people with the referendum. Social media could be a vital tool in boosting the engagement of those who already have some interest in politics, or in providing information to those who are looking for it about which side they may wish to support on polling day. It will do little, however, to reverse the fact that at least one in five Millennials are unlikely to take play any role in the referendum at all.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to