Puffles crashes into the academic bubble


Puffles takes on a panel at The Political Quarterly’s “Is politics doomed?” conference

Well…not literally. This was hosted by Dr Tony Wright, former chair of the Public Administration Select Committee in what some of us call the ‘duck house’ Parliament. Wright was one of the few MPs who seemed to come out of the expenses scandal relatively unscathed. His work on reforming select committees in 2009 was widely applauded. He decided not to stand again for the Cannock Chase seat – which was won by Aidan Burley, who you may remember from this and this.

This post also relates to my previous observations at Four professors and a dragon fairy

Academics vs the politicians

There’s very little to add to my previous blogpost in terms of content. My thoughts on this event are similar to the event mentioned in the above blogpost. Today’s event was split into two sections. The first exploring whether politics was doomed, and the second asking what can be done about it. The second half was far more interesting than the first half – for me the simple reason being that the debate felt too ‘safe’.

With the exception of observations on Obama, the panel seemed to have a similar worldview. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve misinterpreted this). I couldn’t help but feel that Dr Wright could have covered many of the points that were made by the panel rather than having to have five academics, most of whom appeared to be from a similar age and/or background. I asked myself what difference would have been made to the panel or the debate if they had someone who was embedded in a community and could speak from the scars and insights of grassroots experience.

This is one of the reasons why I’d love to see more academics taking to social media and hosting events outside the physical world of academia (or alternatively, inviting people from far beyond academia onto their campuses). How would academics respond to challenges that came from far beyond the safety of academia and their peers? What could others from the world beyond universities learn from the professors?

Social media isn’t the be all and end all

Perhaps I don’t make this as clear as I could when speaking/intervening at conferences. My disposition is one where I believe social media use can have a huge positive impact on many things, but (in the world of politics in particular) cannot replace face-to-face engagement. In the world of mass broadcasting, perhaps it has become too easy for individual politicians to hide behind (or be swamped by) a political brand rather than standing out as individuals in their own right, but attached to/associated with a political party. This may be a symptom of command and control style of parliamentary politics since the 1990s.

The big question for me is: How can politicians and political activists use social and digital media to complement their existing activities? There is no universal right answer for this – it will vary from community to community, just as it will change over time. One of the mistakes a number of people have made with social media is they judged it on the basis of a snapshot in time – the present. Dr Wright said exactly this today – noting social media hadn’t covered itself in glory over recent abuse scandals and all things Newsnight (that a few hours ago claimed the job of the director general George Entwhistle). Social media use is rapidly evolving, with organisations desperate to learn as much as they possibly can as quick as possible so they don’t (continue to) get caught out. The problem they face is that the goalposts are moving all the time and the picture is ever so fluid.

What are the trends, patterns and opportunities?

Quite understandably, sceptics of social media use in the political sense will say that only a minority of people use social media use it for political engagement. What’s the point in exhausting a lot of time for what is a niche audience? Again, a conclusion drawn from a snapshot in time. What do the trends show? It is this sort of data that the social and digital media savvy organisations scramble to get hold of in order to influence their decision-making processes. As previous events that I have been to have said, we are also living in a world of ‘big data’ – i.e. where we now have the technological capacity to collect huge amounts of data, process it and analyse it in a very short space of time. Anyone who has used the internet or an app for public transport (e.g. trains, tubes and/or buses) is using services that relies on the collection and processing of huge amounts of data – data that means I don’t have to spend ages waiting in the cold for a bus or a train to arrive.

As things currently stand, social media is full of little bubbles – just as academia is. Through Puffles I can get insights into what happens in those bubbles. Law, journalism, party politics, public administration, alternative activism – they are all their own little bubbles, but how I use social media allows me to get insights into all of them. (This is why I encourage people to follow others outside their immediate interests and/or those that they are likely to agree with on most things, lest your feed becomes an echo chamber). There are also bubbles of social media platforms that reflect geographically too. These were highlighted at yesterday’s event at the EU’s offices, but are also reflected geographically and demographically within the UK too. Anecdotally a number of people have mentioned Twitter being more popular with professional classes in the south of England while Facebook is more popular in the north. Again, I’ve not found data to verify that, but given the growing interest of data analysis, data journalism and big data, I can’t help but feel that organisations will be looking to feed these things into their decision-making processes.

Is politics doomed?

Party politics in the way that we have understood it for the past few decades certainly is doomed. Not just party politics, but a whole host of other things too because of things like:

  • the crises of institutions
  • the scale of the growing challenges we face (e.g. climate change), and
  • the raging pace of technological progress

You could say it’s both thrilling and frightening to be living in the time that we are in today – there is so much uncertainty but at the same time a huge amount of opportunity to change things for the better. I cited the leadership vacuum across institutions both within the UK and abroad as one issue. Given this and many other things, I simply do not believe that people will continue to accept the placing of vacuous placid lobby fodder in safe seats in Parliament. Come 2015 I believe that there will be a general expectation that candidates (from the main parties at least) will be expected to be on social media and be using it in a manner where they are engaging with local people. Thus anyone who is a personality vacuum will be found out very quickly. 

What of political parties?

Dr Wright raised a very good point about parties as (very flawed but essential) institutions in our parliamentary democracy. He cited around 1% of the population are members of political party, but that 1% of people are the ones that have a say in who gets to stand (and ultimately get elected) for Parliament. This moved onto the debate about some of the structural flaws in our system that I have blogged about in the past – such as MPs being part of the government they are supposed to be scrutinising. But the second panel – containing Labour MPs Frank Dobson and Helen Goodman – raised the issue of political marketing misleading the public. Not in terms of policies, but in terms of the role that they were standing for. Frank Dobson had a superb anecdote about his predecessor Lena Jeger that I’ll try to recall. Jeger was campaigning for Labour during the 1930s and took the lift to the top floor of a block of flats. After going into a speech about how she would stand up against the threat of the nazis, the resident said:

“Did you take the lift? Stinks of piss, don’t it? What you gon’ta do about them pissing in the lift?”

When Jeger responded that she couldn’t really do much about it, the response was swift but crushing:

“Well if you can’t stop them pissing in the lift, why should I trust you to be great enough to stop the nazis?”

Dr Wright cited Ben Page on historical records on popularity of politicians over the ages.

“This survey of people said that only 35% of people thought politicians were acting in the national interest… [long pause] … and this was a survey of people taken in 1944 at the height of the war”

The lesson being that there was no golden age of politics. Politicians inevitably have to disappoint. Is politics about delivering limited resources to societies with unlimited demands? If so, how have we ended up where so many of these limited resources are in the hands of so few people? (And why does modern mainstream politics seem unable to offer a way to resolve this – assuming you agree that it is a problem in the first place? Not all of Puffles’ followers do).

A rise of politicians with stronger principles and greater consistency?

The data and information we have available – and the ease of access – means that it is much more straight forward to challenge politicians on a statement made today with one made in the past. While the mainstream media like to focus on the big name politicians (Tony Blair’s manifesto from 1983 for example), at a local level social and digital media allows local people to do the same at a hyper-local level. (The link there being Richard Taylor’s dogged pursuit of Tory PCC Candidate ex-MP Sir Graham Bright). Will those politicians who feel the need to wait for what the party HQ tells them to think and say find themselves in greater hot water under such scrutiny compared with those who stick to a consistent set of principles (whatever they may be) throughout their career?

Co-ordination, consistency and control

These are often confused with one another in the political sense. As a politician, you want to be consistent in what you say rather than flipping from one position to another because otherwise people will lose trust in what you stand for & believe in. In a political party you want to be co-ordinating with what others in your party are doing and saying, but at the same time how much ‘control’ do you want to cede to the party machine – especially where you disagree with the ‘line to take’? Social media use means that the tensions between the three can be amplified and publicised to much wider audiences. How should political parties respond?


One thought on “Puffles crashes into the academic bubble

  1. Social media is unlikely to disappear any time soon and therefore it needs to be embraced. However, I’m a bit more skeptical about the benefits of it. The problems of social media were most acutely demonstrated by the London riots where mobs were able to use it to assemble quickly and find other like-minded souls. It demonstrated all the worst signs of human nature: selfish, reactionary and unthinking.

    Tragically much of the attacks on institutions by social media (whether they be the more right wing attacks the BBC, the EU … or left wing attacking on the police and the Tory party) fall into much the same category. There is usually a mantra along the lines of “Something is wrong, therefore X must be removed/reformed/fired” firing up the twitter mob. Invariably the twitter mob quickly dissipates once they’ve got their target (meaning the political momentum for better legislation/though through reform is lost).

    Often the target/punishment is completely disproportionate to the crime and in some cases even (arguably) counterproductive for the greater good. Example are the people wanting to “close the BBC” because of the Saville affair or “withdraw from the EU” because of some seemingly ill-thought through regulation or a clumsy remark from a Eurocrat.

    Much of these criticisms are not unique to social media. In many ways aspects of the media have been playing a similar negative role (particularly the right wing press perpetually undermining the EU/BBC). However, I fear that twitter/social media can actually make things worse rather than better. The 140 character limit askews all subtlety in an argument. The ability to write an instant comment leads to limited analysis and reflection. The ability to find likeminded views leads to wrong/bigoted views being reinforced.

    Equally I fear that social media (despite offering people power) may actually undermine it. Attacks on state institutions (that need to be accountable to the public) are much more likely to be successful than attacks on “private” institutions (which are only really accountable to shareholders and customers). Equally when the state institution has powerful private sector enemies (eg. the BBC) the attacks are much more likely to gain external momentum (a good example being the front cover of the Mail on Sunday attacking the BBC). The net effect is that actually social media may lead to the more idiotic “Daily Mail” politics and not less!

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