When will Twitter start impacting on elections?

This was a question put to me by one of my local councillors, Cllr Ian Manning of Cambridgeshire County Council in the comments section of my Cambridge Twitter List blogpost.

The short answer is: “I don’t know”. (Not being a politician means I am allowed to respond like this. Apparently if you become a politician you have to have an in depth fully referenced and error-free response that would stand up to cross-examination by expert-in-the-field-backed senior counsel in the High Court).


Twitter at the moment is a bubble – or rather a series of bubbles depending on who you follow and interact with. It’s only when you float between bubbles that you realise their existence – or rather, that has been my experience. The Westminster Bubble is one of many – and one that has bubbles within its own – whether the civil service bubble (which has its own bubbles within – whether senior civil service world, Fast Stream world or even trade union campaigning/PCS Union world), the Parliament bubble or the lobbying bubble.

How long will Twitter stay at the top?

Twitter is essentially the most successful brand name of a social medium known as micro-blogging. Apart from its sheer simplicity, one of the things that makes it successful is that lots of people in key fields use it. That does not mean they will continue to do so. For me the two biggest threats to Twitter are:

  1. The desire for the host company to make more money from what is currently a free service
  2. SPAM – whether automated accounts following or sending out messages

The first one involves Twitter placing adverts in users’ timelines. On the issue of advertising, my take is that few people like advertising appearing without their consent in the middle of something that they are using. Think of how often you change the TV channel or radio station when the adverts appear. In the days when I was a regular normal TV watcher and radio listener this was all of the time. If the desire to make more money through advertising leads to too many adverts, users will vote with their feet – or thumbs.

The second is SPAM – which is not free. SPAM has a carbon footprint. Individually we may not pay for it, but the environment does. If Twitter does not get hold of the problem of SPAM tweets and accounts, again people will vote with their thumbs.

Tumbling down the technology mountain

The reason why I’ve raised both these issues is that ascents and descents in new technology world can be very fast on either side. Think of the cartoon mountains that the 2-D characters of the last millennium used to run up and down. Then think of the companies or operations that used to be huge but are now no longer. The big two that I can think of are FriendsReunited and MySpace.

Ten years ago when I was still at university, people from outside the UK were saying what a brilliant idea it was, and how they wished they had something like that. In those days, it was free to use and (if I recall correctly) send messages. But then the desire to make money beyond advertising kicked in. The zapping of email addresses and webpages in user profiles along with the need to subscribe and pay to make full use amongst other things drove the casual users away. Then Facebook came along which did everything FriendsReunited did, for free and with far greater functionality and usability. Remember that ITV paid £175million for FriendsReunited in 2005…and sold it for £25million in 2009. I don’t know which executives got sacked for that loss either. MySpace was bought by Murdoch’s empire in 2005 for $580million and sold in 2011 for $35million. Thus even having big media backers is no guaranteer of success. Basically there is no guarantee that Twitter will still be here in five years time.

Back to social media and elections

In a sense social media is enabling candidates standing for election to interact with electorates individually in the days when door-to-door canvassing by candidates and campaigners was far more of a regular feature than it is today. It means that, unlike over the past few decades the option of hiding your ‘loose cannon’ or complete non-entity of a candidate away from the media and from interviews is now no longer an option. BBC Question Time panels are a reflection of that mindset. Look at the politicians who appear on there more often than is sensible – their regular appearances not reflecting well on other politicians. This for me is also reflection of the desire of political parties to control everything from the centre: Only send out the pre-approved people.

Social media – irrespective of the platforms used, allow candidates and politicians to engage and debate with their constituents at the leisure of both. This is important given how busy people’s lives have become on both sides. It also means that candidates and politicians have to listen that little bit more. (Mother nature gave human beings two ears and one mouth in those proportions for a reason.) I’m not talking about ‘lines to take listening’ which is something like:

“I agree with you [insert name of person who asked question] in that you have raised a very important point…and now I am going to repeat your question and expand on it and say that they are important points [of which I am going to list 1, 2 and 3 counting them off using my fingers] that we/they along with [insert name of other people and organisations] need to deal with before I proceed to not answer your question.”

Yes, I have done media training too. Answering the question you wanted to be asked rather than the one you were asked in the first place no longer cuts the mustard.

You still haven’t properly answered the question

The reasons why I stated “I don’t know” at the top is because there are too many variables and factors that could affect if and when social media in general will impact on elections – such as:

  • If people feel that voting is either a wasted effort (e.g. “safe seats”) or won’t have any impact on their lives, the impact of any social media campaign is going to be limited.
  • Just because people use social media does not automatically equate using social media to engage in mainstream politics. Politicians need to give people reasons and incentives to engage with them.
  • Some people have made the conscious choice not to use social media.
  • Data and information – I don’t have enough of it to make a judgement call. For example the raw numbers of social media accounts does not account for multiple accounts or spam accounts. I also don’t know how people are using their accounts – both nature of and intensity of use.
  • Abuse – running a party political social media account inevitably means taking a share of metaphorical hits. And that’s just from the tribal types from opposition parties. Social media unfortunately can involve opening yourself to vitriol and personal attacks. Understandably some politicians and candidates choose to avoid social media because of this.

Possible outcomes – a broken swingometer

One of the things that we did see at the 2010 general election was how the traditional ‘swingometer’ model did not work. I recalled a number of comments from analysts on the night saying that a number of seats did not return results as predicted – hence the Coalition. The Liberal Democrats in particular lost three of their strongest performers in Parliament – Julia Goldsworthy (who has since disappeared out of public life now that she is Danny Alexander’s Special Adviser in The Treasury), Susan Kramer (Now in the Lords) and Dr Evan Harris – all of whom would have been contenders for ministerial posts had they won their seats.

Social media use may mean that we see more ‘unexpected’ (unexpected to the national press) results if as a result of local social media use enough people choose to go against what’s seen to be ‘the tide’. A talented and locally popular candidate from an unpopular party (or a party with an unpopular leader) who can also use social media well to engage with people may have a stronger chance of election. The same is could be true if a party polling well with a popular leader chooses to select a weak candidate who might make good compliant lobby-fodder.

Possible outcomes – fewer ‘parachuted’ candidates

The use of social media may mean that there is a longer-term incentive for candidates to come from and stand in their local areas rather than being parachuted in. It takes a huge amount of effort to build up a sizeable social media following – even more so in the keeping of it. By using social media, would-be candidates can spend time developing and nurturing their relationships with people in their local area so that by the time it comes to election time, they have some idea of what that individual is like as well as their record beyond what is written in party political pamphlets or the letters pages in the local papers.

As publications go, local pamphlets don’t do the greatest job of making politicians or candidates look human. (Central government publications can be even worse – just think “civil service-speak”). I have no idea why councillors have a habit of being photographed pointed at potholes and other bad stuff. I don’t go around town pointing at potholes & getting people to take photos of me doing so. Why do they? I’m yet to meet a person who has said “I’m going to vote for that person because I saw a photograph of them pointing at a pothole!” It must be a local government thing as enough of them have been doing so nationally that the glum councillors website has lots to make hay with. I’ve already told some councillors and candidates that if I see any of their literature containing photos of them looking particularly glum, Puffles may refer said offending item to the aforementioned website! What happened to the standard no-nonsense portrait photographs of old that said “Here’s a fine upstanding chap! Vote for him!” (I should add that this paragraph was written in jest, and not to detract from those who do pound the pavements canvassing – wingtip to Andy Bower’s comment below).

Social media blurs the ‘professional’ and the ‘personal’ (with all the potential pitfalls this brings). The best examples of this I have seen are where politicians have crowd-sourced solutions to day-to-day problems that have nothing to do with politics – normally involving computers, phones or complaints about bad service somewhere, or involving trying to get hold of a certain piece of music that they & those around them cannot recall the name of.

…which brings us to Cambridge (for me at least)

In my ideal world, every councillor and candidate would be using social media so that we could find out more about them. Cambridge City Council maintains a Twitterlist (which it a) needs to refresh and b) take it down in the run up to local elections lest it be accused of favouring incumbent candidates) and a quick glance seems to indicate that Puffles the baby dragon fairy may have more followers than all of the councillors on the city council put together. That’s not to kick sand in the faces councillors. It may be an indication that there is huge scope for reaching out to Cambridge residents who use Twitter but have not thought about using it to engage with their elected representatives. It may also be an indication that Twitter use in Cambridge is lower compared to other areas. Again, I’ve not seen the data, and what data there may be may have flaws in due to multiple, SPAM and dormant accounts.

One of the things I did at the 2010 general election was to email all of the candidates a short list of questions particular to my circumstances and my concerns. I don’t know how many others did. All but one of them got back to me, the responses of which had a major impact on how I decided to vote. The lesson of this exercise is that if people cannot contact you, they cannot ask you questions. If they cannot ask questions, you cannot give them answers. If you choose not to make yourselves available to the electorate while your political opponents are – in particular if the latter are being proactive, some of that electorate may choose to interpret that lack of access or that silence accordingly. .


5 thoughts on “When will Twitter start impacting on elections?

  1. I have no idea why councillors have a habit of being photographed pointed at potholes and other bad stuff. I don’t go around town pointing at potholes & getting people to take photos of me doing so. Why do they? I’m yet to meet a person who has said “I’m going to vote for that person because I saw a photograph of them pointing at a pothole!” It must be a local government thing as enough of them have been doing so nationally that the glum councillors website has lots to make hay with.

    It’s called pavement politics. It was invented by the Liberal Democrats – read all about it here: http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=69&item=history

    You might very well think that it is dumbing down of politics and aims to stoke up any hint of self-centred nimbyism in the electorate but I couldn’t possibly comment.

    One thing I can tell you is that in an electoral area as hard-fought as Cambridge, candidates who think pavement politics is beneath them and that they will attract votes through a combination of their own personal magnetism, national issues and high principle end up being very surprised and bitterly disappointed at their abysmal showing at the ballot box.

  2. I see you’ve clarified your comment:

    (I should add that this paragraph was written in jest, and not to detract from those who do pound the pavements canvassing – wingtip to Andy Bower’s comment below).

    I didn’t imagine you were criticising canvassing, which I know you value, but I think you had a good point about pavement politics even if it was in jest.

    See http://cherryhintonroad.blogspot.com/2008/03/fix-my-street.html and http://cherryhintonroad.blogspot.com/2008/04/pavement-politics.html passim. It can become all about who promises to make sure other people’s money gets spent predominantly on one small patch. It ends up with people who might have had a conservative disposition going native and getting sucked into a 25-year strong leftist local government orthodoxy. Who would want to be a part of all that?

    The classic Lib Dem trick, I understand, is to get a hold of the list of planned works, run a campaign in a place that’s about to get something done about why that thing needs to be done and then after its done claim victory. Not my idea of what politics should be about.

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