Social media: When does a follow run the risk of being seen as favouritism?

This tweet from Arif Ansari, the BBC North West political editor got me thinking today:

I’ve no idea how much truth there is in the claim made by the Lib Dems in Manchester. It is worth noting there are far fewer elected Lib Dems in Manchester thanks to strong case of coalition fallout at the local elections in May.

Nigel Barlow, the founder of the Inside the M60 site, posted the entire press release on his new blog, ‘Procrastinating Politicians

The ‘official’ account follows 168 people; which include six Labour City Councillors, the account for Manchester Labour (@ManchesterRose) and Manchester’s Labour MEP, Arlene McCarthy. The official account does not follow a single Liberal Democrat Councillor or politician despite many having twitter accounts.

But does it really matter? To the Lib Dems, it clearly does – and that poses a dilemma for journalists.

Every reporter is encouraged to make use of social networks to interact with contacts and their communities, be they geographical of subject-specific communities. A question I get reasonably frequently is ‘Does a follow (on Twitter) or liking someone (on Facebook) make it look as though I’m biased?’

My answer, up until now, has always been ‘no.’ After all, ‘liking’ a campaign group on Facebook for professional purposes is no more a sign of being biased towards the campaign than attending a protest to report on it. At least that’s my belief. The word ‘like’ from Facebook perhaps muddies things a little, but it’s just a mechanism to get information, right?

Likewise, following a politician or a campaign group on Twitter doesn’t mean you’re show bias towards them – it just means you’ll more likely to see what they say, and that’s surely no different than speaking to them.

Retweeting things campaign groups or those sitting on one side of the argument poses a different set of challenges – but nothing which can’t be clarified with clever editing of the Tweet.

The Lib Dem criticism of Manchester City Council is perhaps a reminder to journalists that on social media, you have to be prepared to justify your actions – even something as simple as the click of a ‘follow’ or ‘like’ button.

Note: I’ve removed a reference to Manchester’s social media manager because the role doesn’t exist.

3 comments

  1. Good points – a quick way if you don’t want to actually follow a person is to learn how to use the lists feature on Twitter. You can add people to lists without following them and group them together e.g. Manchester councillors, local charities, Birmingham footballers. Lists can be accessed through the usual twitter.com login but come into their own when using Tweetdeck/Hootsuite etc.

  2. Hi David.

    It’s actually slightly less sinister than it would appear. The council just hadn’t properly updated the list of councillors that it follows for a while. So, while it’s true that the council wasn’t following any current Lib Dem councillors, it also wasn’t following a whole load of Labour ones either. The council was, however, following former Lib Dem councillor Paul Ankers who, before he lost his seat, was actually the group’s most prolific tweeter. It’s all been updated now and I think we’ve got them all.

    Pity Arif or Nigel didn’t ask me about this as I could’ve told them all that!

    If you could induldge me, I also would like to ever-so-slightly rap your knuckles. We don’t have a social media manager – that was a tabloid invention. Along with the legion of other fantasy jobs that you often read exist in local government, Manchester City Council’s fabled Twitter tsar simply doesn’t exist. We do, of course, have a digital comms manager, some of whose remit covers some areas of social media (as does mine), but I’m sure you would agree that that’s very different to an actual social media manager.

    Smyth Harper
    Head of News
    Manchester City Council
    Follow me on twitter @sharper76

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment and clarification – I thought I’d done enough research to establish you didn’t have a Twitter Tsar but did have a social media manager, which seemed to make sense.

      The more I think about it, the more I think that a follow isn’t a sign of favouritism or bias, it’s just a tool to keep in contact. Easy for me to say, but I’d probably say to critics who aren’t being followed ‘say something interesting then.’ But that’s probably not a wise move!

      David

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