In the municipal elections of this year, the campaigns will not take concretely place at public sites with the candidates offering coffee and various caterings to crowds of potential voters. Although we will still vote using pens and paper, these elections will be more digital than any of the previous ones. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, election campaigns will take place primarily in the media and on various online platforms – social media, in particular, will play a bigger role than ever before. This may influence the elections significantly.
The Internet is an integral part of the daily life of Finnish people. According to Statistics Finland, more than 80 percent of Finns use online connections several times a day, and in total, up to 92 percent of Finns use the Internet at least occasionally. About 70 percent of Finns use social media. The usage of social media varies across age groups: middle-aged and older people tend to use certain applications while younger people prefer some others.
Older people spend time in Facebook, while the younger generation uses Instagram. On the other hand, the message application WhatsApp is popular in all age groups. A common feature of the most popular services is that Facebook owns them. It seems likely that they will not only serve as the main arena for political debate, but also gather a considerable share of money spent on advertising. Mere money is not enough, however:
Successful campaigning in social media calls for special competences as well.
The average age of persons who got elected in the previous municipal elections was 50 – thus, they were typically born around the mid-1960s. When it comes to the adoption of technology, then again, an interesting dividing line can be detected at about the age cohort born in 1971–1972, the so-called Commodore generation,: For them, the adoption of information technology and related services seems to be fairly easy already. Yet, they are no digital natives: Generally speaking, only for younger generations, those born in the 1990s or later, the Internet has been a self-evident part of daily life.
Indeed, experience and competence from the digital world may have an impact on the age structure of the future municipal policy-makers as well.
In addition, social status has a considerable impact on the use of online connections. High-income and highly educated people use online services more diversely both at work and in their free time, whereas people having lower income and education levels tend to use Internet more for entertainment. This also affects the possibilities of different population groups to act in a democratic system. The term ’information elite’ is often used in this context; such an elite strengthens its position by means of technology and at the expense of other groups.
Voting activity in municipal elections tends to be lower than in other general elections. It also varies across different population groups: For example, low-income, less highly educated, young, and people living in eastern Finland tend to vote more scarcely than average. Democracy is thus working as if at half-capacity, and if so-called sleeping voters become active instead, it might have a significant impact on the results.
In this respect, the municipal elections in June are extremely interesting. The usually low voting rate in municipal elections, the impact of the pandemic on voting activity, and largely online-based campaigning are factors the effects of which are hard to foresee.
Will the online campaigns attract new voters? Will it exclude some groups? Will some candidates fail in their campaigns because of inadequate digital skills?
Especially internationally, there has been discussion about interfering with elections, referring to the attempts of some external bodies to influence the final result. In Finland, no such interference has been detected, nor are the municipal elections a likely target for it. On the other hand, the unusual setting of these municipal elections might make interfering easier than in normal conditions.
For instance, influence operations online and in social media is more effective and appealing than in the street.
Although the upcoming elections will be more digital than ever, digitality is not extended to the actual voting procedure. In connection with postponing the municipal elections, there was some talk about developing electronic and online voting for the future needs.
We should be cautious with such solutions: Using manual voting with ballot boxes combined with the election information system is not only a fast but also a reliable way to organise the elections. Public trust in the elections and their results is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. It should not be undermined.
The writer works as a Lecturer in the Faculty of Information Technology.
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