A lot of twaddle has been spoken about the role social media – or particularly Twitter – has played in creating a new voice for the British public in politics, and public life in general.
Take deputy prime minister John Prescott, an ex-MP and Lord who many cite as the perfect example of a politican on Twitter – the great and the good involved in general discussion with the wider general public.
In this piece in the Guardian – to mark Twitter’s 10million ‘users in the UK, although whether that is users of accounts isn’t clear – Prescott claims the Leveson Inquiry was set up as a result – in part at least – to Twitter. He points to the 25,000 people who complained to the Press Complaint Commission about Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gateley as another way of Twitter empowering the public (although, understandably, fails to mention the huge spike in traffic the Mail will have received as a result of that publicity). In short, he says, it makes the media accountable. Which, of course, it does, and that’s a good thing.
But does it also have the same effect on politics? When Prezza gets a tweet from someone he disagrees with, or who says something critical of him, his response (and I speak from bizarre experience) is to go on the attack. I am, Prezza told me, the most boring person h’d encountered on Twitter (fine), after I’d questioned whether Labour’s legacy (and his) was all it was cracked up be. Cue dozens of tweets from his supporters, some literate, some semi-literate at best, mostly rude, mostly offensive. For a man who believes the media should be accountable, he doesn’t half reveal the traits he deplores on Fleet Street – ganging up, refusing to listen, ignoring people – when he hears something he disagrees with.
Still, it made for an entertaining train ride back up to London that day. The principle of Twitter holding people to account is a nice one, but it rather relies on the person who is accountable agreeing to be held accountable. Should Prescott – clearly a believer in the wisdom of the crowd – apologise for not doing more to make Labour listen to the two million who marched on London in protest to the War in Iraq? That was wisdom of the crowd in action – shame about the cloth ears around the cabinet table at the time.
But that’s not to say Twitter isn’t making a difference in politics. Yes, it’s made the need to respond to something even more instant, but I’ve got an example of Twitter truly making a difference – literally giving the public an instant voice in the House of Commons chamber.
Earlier this month, Conservative MP Jake Berry, who represents Rossendale and Darwen, took part in a debate about the cost of fuel. It’s been something of a hot topic in Rossendale where local supermarkets have been charging several pence a litre more for petrol than their forecourts just a few miles down the road (and well done to my local paper, the Rossendale Free Press for taking up the campaign).
Geek that I am, I looked up the debate which Jake Berry spoke in on Theyworkforyou. This comment really impressed me:
“One of my constituents is following this debate and has just tweeted me to say that they spend £4,600 a year on diesel, £1,000 on insurance and £240 on road tax, so going to work costs them £5,840. She is considering giving up work because of the excessive price of fuel. The lady’s Twitter handle is “knot_weed”. Does the hon. Lady accept that that is difficult both for businesses and their employees?”
This is the best use of Twitter in politics I’ve seen. Forget winning elections via social media. Forget uniting behind a cause on social media (uniting behind a cause always happened, it was just that it used to be less instant). This is an example of Twitter being used to shape and influence political discussion – as it happens.
This is made possible thanks to a change in Parliament rules allowing MPs to use Blackberries (and similar) in the chamber. MPs connecting to Twitter while in the Chamber enables them to understand the mood of their constituents and respond accordingly.
MPs, politicians and political parties have talked a lot about using social media to connect with public without relying on the media, as though the big, bad, nasty press was the only thing preventing voters from lapping up their every word.
If politicians really want to see increased engagement and voter turnout, I’d suggest they follow Jake Berry’s example and show that Twitter can be used for much more than saving pennies on stamps for political messages.