How politicians should use social media

Politicians have always wanted to get their message directly to the voters and with social networking, they can. But it's not one-way traffic, warns Paul Vale
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Organising a night out, poking your friends, catching up with a schoolmate you last saw in 1987 ... Facebook has become a vital part of our social lives, but it could decide something a lot more important that whether you're heading to the Dog and Duck tonight. It's going to play a big part in who runs Britain. With an election happening in less than a month, politicians have woken up to the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At stake are not only the keys to No 10, but – and more profoundly – how the Government engages with the people from here on in.

The general election on 6 May will mark the start of the campaigning season proper for parties, politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates. Much of the debate will take a traditional form, using door-knocking, posters and broadcasts. Yet in the last five years since the British electorate (or at least 61 per cent of them) took to the polls, the world has evolved beyond measure.

The development of social networking, alongside the unprecedented growth in online video content, added to an upsurge in broadband access – an increase of 28 per cent between 2006 and 2009 according to the Office of National Statistics – has transformed us into an increasingly cyber society, forcing politicians to adapt with varying degrees of success. Gordon Brown's YouTube video on MPs' expenses is unlikely to be remembered as a high water mark for the integration of politics and technology.

For anyone in public office, engaging in personalised interaction can be like dancing on a trap door. From America, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ill-advised tweet on Judge Sonia Sotomayor – "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw" – stands as a clear warning.

Yet, for every ill-conceived tweet or detrimental status update, there have been myriad successes for politicians, campaigners and pressure groups hoping to make a mark. Writing recently in this paper, Kerry McCarthy, Britain's Twitter Tsar, said that MPs tweet because it can "reveal the person behind the politician; their principles, their passions, their personality. It's the authentic voice that comes through, of the MP and in aggregate, of the Party". So there can be a political reward. It's also, she suggests, "good fun".

Since it launched in 2006, Facebook has matured from a tool for keeping in touch with friends to a powerful and highly effective way of grouping communities, offering a collective voice to anyone with an internet connection.

This was highlighted in January when Islam4UK, an offshoot of the banned Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, was banned under counter-terrorism laws, following a Facebook campaign.

Grass roots campaigns are one thing. An election campaign is another. But if Westminster was slow on the uptake about social networks, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, founded on a campaign with a comprehensive online strategy, should have proved portentous.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, Thomas Gensemer, the mastermind behind Obama's online campaign, said that the ideal is "an integrated strategy that includes third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter", working alongside more established methods, such as door-to-door petitioning.

Many factors played a part in securing the White House for the Democrats in 2008. Still, $560m in online fundraising goes a long way, especially when allied to an enthusiastic support mobilised via the web.

For Richard Allen, a former Liberal Democratic politician now employed as the Director of EU policy at Facebook, the use of social networking by the Obama campaign made people feel more empowered. "An Obama supporter in the backwoods of Oklahoma, who would previously have found it difficult to do anything practical, could now get together with other supporters. This allowed them to take ownership of the campaign rather than passively waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This dramatically extended the Democrats' reach."

Allen also believes having a single presidential candidate around which to orientate the campaign made it easier for US activists to engage with the electorate. "In the UK there's a much more complex relationship between the parties and the voters. When you cross the ballot paper, you're not crossing it for David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. You're crossing the ballot for whoever your local candidate is."

Looking at the Facebook fan pages of the party leaders suggests the British electorate has been slow to embrace parliamentary politics via the site – so far. David Cameron leads with 17,500 followed by Gordon Brown (4,000) and Nick Clegg (3,500).

These figures will no doubt rise in the coming weeks (David Cameron has added 3,500 fans in the last two months). The official party pages on Facebook, however, are in good health – the Conservatives' page is the most popular, boasting around 25,000 fans and plenty of daily updates.

At the constituency level, MPs such as Tom Watson, the Labour candidate for West Bromwich East, have been building an online community for years through blogs and, more recently, Twitter. However, the problem for MPs such as Watson is that online communities have no regional boundaries. As such, members of his online community may have absolutely no say in returning him to parliament next month. Still, more politicians of all stripes are turning to social networking as a way to communicate. Following the success of Tweet Congress in America, a British version launched in December 2008 offering access to tweets from politicians, as well as political commentators and news services. Called Tweetminster, the service aggregates Tweets from the political world.

A recent Tweetminster report focusing on political traffic makes for interesting reading. Collated throughout 2009, the document suggests that MPs, prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) and grass-roots supporters representing Labour are the most active on Twitter, with more followers than both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats combined. But it also suggests that the Conservatives boast a greater reach, with official party posts receiving more mentions and retweets. In short, Labour supporters at the bottom are driving the Twitter conversation on the centre left, whilst official Conservative tweets from the top are driving the conversation from the centre right. Tweets and Retweets from the Liberal Democrats featured both grass roots and official traffic. Despite the surprisingly neutral conclusion of the research, the report still had Labour and Conservative supporters locking horns in the blogosphere over which party was the dominant force on Twitter. Such are the stakes.

According to Tweetminster co-founder Alberto Nardelli, "there is likely to be a significant rise in the number of candidates and MPs using Twitter in the run-up to the election. However, as it takes time to build a following and those that join late will struggle to find value in a short period of time."

So those MPs not currently on Twitter may have missed the boat. Still, there are already large numbers on the site – 111 MPs and 226 candidates at the beginning of the year. What impact they will have on the election is difficult to quantify, especially as Twitter isn't just an interaction between MPs and the electorate. Another important part of the equation is the traditional media, whether that's newspapers, the BBC, Sky News or any other major news gatherer. While social networks may be able to set the agenda, it takes the force of traditional media to frame it.

For Nardelli, this is the key to how Twitter will influence the election. "More and more articles are using Twitter as a source, so it really depends on how traditional media interpret these stories." And like any source, Tweets can be bent by the media to fit an agenda. In February, the Daily Mail ran a story suggesting that David Cameron had "ordered his party's candidates to submit their online utterances [Tweets] for vetting". According to Nardelli, Tory candidates had simply been asked to "be careful when discussing official Conservative policy", a far cry from the "strict edicts" mentioned in the paper. The story was picked up by other papers and even received a mention on Newsnight.

So it's the same cat and mouse game politicians have always played with the media, just using new tools. Still, the benefits seem to be outweighing the potential hazards, so much so that between January and March this year 16 MPs and 59 PPCs joined Twitter. That means nearly 19 per cent of parliament currently Tweets, a figure that should rise with the influx of current PPCs after the election.

Tweet Congress offers similar uptake figures for American politicians, yet Nardelli sees far more direct interaction between politicians and the electorate in Britain. "In the US lots of politicians have Twitter feeds but they tend to link to press releases or official blogs." In short, you're unlikely to find your local congressman sat at home trying to squeeze comment into 140 characters. In the UK, it generally is your local MP.

Before a Commons Liaison Committee, Gordon Brown recently spoke of broadening the franchise by lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, no doubt an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, carrying overtures of electoral reform should there be a hung parliament after the election. It may also point towards a new attempt to engage with the younger demographic, mindful of their potentially significant voice harmonised by social networking. Yet it's important to remember that these sites aren't just playthings for listless teens. According to Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on the site is over 55-year-old women. Whatever the outcome in May, from here on in we're all going to have a say.

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