Trust, authenticity and Twitter – welcome to politics 2.0

22 Oct 2009

Ireland narrowly avoided a snap election in recent weeks. But everyone knows that a general election may not be too far away.

If there is an election in the near future, you can be guaranteed that social-media platforms, such as Twitter, will feature strongly in future political debate by ministers, by journalists and by campaigners. All will be judged by voters.

Email, YouTube and Twitter proved invaluable to the election campaign of US President Barack Obama. The new president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, has his own Facebook page, while the UK’s new Europe minister, Chris Bryant, broke the news of his appointment on Twitter before any journalist had a whiff of it. A reporting ban on The Guardian last week by the UK Parliament crumbled following immense pressure by bloggers and Twitter users.

Online communications campaign

Stephen Clark is the head of web for the European Parliament. His main focus in 2009 had been on the design and delivery of the Parliament’s online communications campaign for the European elections in June 2009, both on and off the website. Clark’s team is also responsible for the daily publication of news headlines on the Parliament’s website in 22 languages.

“The way politics is consumed has changed radically. On the one hand, there’s the traditional media who are extremely important and no one should question that, but on the other you have this Web 2.0 world where there’s the opportunity to react to and share news. The phenomenon is where you no longer have the political class addressing the public, everybody is in on this big conversation which is sometimes civilised and sometimes not.”

Twitter, again

In Clark’s own experience of Twitter, on election night of the European elections in June, those elections were the third most talked about subject on Twitter. “I think President Obama’s campaign led to a psychological watershed, before then people were only waking up to the use of the internet in politics. Before that you had France’s President Sarkozy using video and blogs in his campaign. The Obama campaign brought this up a notch.”

Rishi Saha is the head of the Conservative Party’s award-winning online operations. Saha is credited as the man behind David Cameron’s online invention ‘Web Cameron’ and was also responsible for one of the UK’s most successful web virals ‘Pimp my Party’. Recently named one of London’s 1,000 Most Influential People by The Evening Standard, Rishi is also a frequent media performer for the BBC and Sky.

Saha believes the new social-media platforms could become essential tools of democracy and politicians must be seen to participate. “What we say to our politicians is, use the tools on which you can be the most authentic, use them as a platform to engage and talk to people, answer people on blogs and be sure your presence is visible.”

About journalism

However, with so many communications tools available, and the reality that all politicians are far from perfect, mistakes can be made, but Saha says it is no different to a politician saying the wrong thing to a journalist or in a TV debate.

“We’ve simply got to evolve with these things; people can say silly things to journalists. It’s not like politicians weren’t making mistakes before the internet came along. We’ve a long and proud tradition of politicians making gaffes, the internet won’t change that. Politicians have also been smearing each other for centuries and I’m sure that will happen on the internet.

“But we’ve also got to realise that people are elected to do a job and it’s their job to exercise sound judgment.”

Politicians, embrace the internet

Jimmy Leach, online editorial director at The Independent, who is the former head of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s digital communications operation, also believes politicians should embrace the internet rather than fear it. He oversaw the launch of the Downing Street petitions website, was director of digital at public relations agency Freud and previously worked for The Guardian website.

“You could treat Twitter and Facebook like loaded guns or you could dive in and embrace (them). It’s no different to someone sticking a microphone in your face when you’re coming out of your house. Making a mistake on Twitter is no different to answering an important question in a slipshod way.

“If you look at the way people communicate and absorb information, it’s increasingly digital.”

Rebuilding trust

Leach believes that the political spin machine, of which he was once a part, is not trusted by the public and social media opens up an opportunity for politicians to rebuild trust. “If you can go direct and explain to an audience without going through the prism of media handling, people will see the basic message rather than feeling like they are being sold to.”

Iain Dale is one of Britain’s leading political bloggers and also writes for The Spectator, The New Statesman, The House Magazine and The Parliamentary Monitor, as well as contributing weekly to The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ blog. He is a newspaper reviewer for both Sky News and the BBC News channel and appears regularly on the BBC’s Today.

According to Dale, even though a growing number of politicians in the UK have blogs and use Twitter, that does not necessarily mean they are making good use of them.

MP blogs

“In the House of Parliament, around 10pc of MPs have blogs and 20pc use Twitter, but they don’t all have the time for these tools. I think Twitter is fine as a news tool, but it is overrated for campaigning. The Labour MP Kerry McCarthy is an avid Twitter user, with 2,000 followers and tweets all the time from the Westminster village, but not about what’s happening in her own constituency. That’s fine in itself, but while she is winding up political opponents she is not using it to win over voters. I think other forms of social media, like Facebook and blogs, are better for winning voters.

“But don’t underestimate Twitter. Jan Moir wrote a nasty homophobic article about Stephen Gately in The Daily Mail and had to take it down because of a massive reaction on Twitter.”

Dale, who plans to run in the next UK general election as a Conservative candidate, got tired of just blogging about politics and decided to participate. “Politicians generally see the internet as a threat rather than an opportunity. That is changing and over time people will use it more and more and fear it less and less.”

He believes that in a world where people can participate in the political debate and talk directly with politicians, in a world where economic realities have politicised more and more people, the role of social media in heightening voter participation cannot be underestimated.

“I was a TV commentator long before I was a blogger. I realised I could shout on the sidelines but won’t achieve anything. Social media is very transient and I can’t imagine doing what I do in five years time. That’s why I decided to go into politics.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years