Feature: Is Twitter dumbing down politics?


Politics may be moving into the digital age, but can serious political debate really take place in just 140 characters?

By Jenny Kerwood

On a rainy December morning I decided to deliver leaflets for a local political party to experience a traditional form of door-to-door campaigning. But while doing so I couldn't help but think what impact these leaflets that I was posting through doors were actually having. Does anyone actually read them? Wouldn't it all be easier sitting in the dry in front of a computer screen?

Since the last general election in 2005 social networking has exploded into mainstream culture and politics is slowly catching up. Come the next general election voters are just as likely to find the most important news and announcements via a Twitter feed or a comment on Facebook than they are in a newspaper.

But is there a risk that in the search of larger and younger audience online MPs are dumbing down today's politics to fit into 140 character Twitter message or a two minute YouTube video?

"The internet brings traditional campaign methods to a new arena, a space in which people are increasingly living their lives," says Alex Smith, editor of blog LabourList. "So the point of internet campaigning is to reflect and enable ground organisation by keeping people connected so they can communicate and arrange offline activity."

But is this space the correct one for politics? A poll by YouGov and published in Prospect magazine found that 39 per cent of the 2024 asked thought that Twitter was dumbing down the way we communicate, yet there are a reported 93 MPs from all political parties that are using the social networking site.

One of the main arguments is not how many politicians are using Twitter, Facebook or YouTube but the ways in which they are using it.

"Twitter is not the place to have a mature debate, not the space to be articulate. But it is great for signposting and drawing people into a debate," Dominic Campbell, founder of consultancy FutureGov says.

Over the last few years politicians have made attempts to use social networking and multimedia websites to varying degrees of success.

Kerry McCarthy was voted the most influential MP on Twitter by The Independent last year. This modern title in a technological age earned her the position of Labour's new media campaigns spokesperson, a role designed to promote and improve MPs' activity on sites like Twitter.

"If a politician is a good communicator, then that will translate to the web. Ed Miliband, for instance, is a good Twitterer because he is a good communicator. John Prescott is great online because he speaks his mind and is charismatic," Smith says.

But there is opposition and disadvantages to the online political movement. David Cameron has previously been very public about his dislike of Twitter and Gordon Brown's horrific YouTube expenses video displays how disastrous one wrong move online can be.

"The internet provides the medium for instant response, but sometimes it is better for a politician to think twice about saying something rather than jump in both feet first," Iain Dale, political blogger and commentator says.

The restrictions of the internet in terms of the length of a post or video and the larger audience the internet provides leads to detailed political messages being diluted or dumbed down.

The broader questions that politics creates can't be answered in 140 characters and it is then that politics needs to move back into the offline environment and avoid dumbing down to conform to the instant, short and easy form of modern cultural communication.

Not only is there a risk of diluting or dumbing down the message but political disagreements can spill over or even begin online.

Kerry McCarthy's Twitter activity has been the target of online campaign KerryOut, which has utilised Twitter and YouTube in their efforts to remove her from her seat in government.

The open online environment also offers as many trapdoors as it does opportunities to MPs wanting to embrace or even avoid the internet.

"The web really concentrates and intensifies news - and disseminates information quickly. If some young candidate quietly says something stupid in a marginal somewhere, the internet has the potential to make that into a very big story very quickly," Smith argues.

"Apart from spreading traditional campaigning methods to a new space, I think that's where the key impact will occur."

In search of direct communication with busy local MPs, Twitter and Facebook may seem like the answer in the digital age.

You can ask politicians questions on Twitter and wait helplessly by the computer for a tweet back or if comments have not been disabled, leave a message underneath a YouTube video in the hope that the politician in question will read it.

But is this really what Twitter is used for?

US Market research firm Pear Analytics studied what exactly people used Twitter for and, unsurprisingly, 40.55% of the tweets they studied were classed as pointless babble and only 37.55% conversational.

"A lot still see social media as a broadcasting tool rather than one for interacting," Dave Evans, entrepreneur, software engineer and social media user says. "They make announcements on social media sites but don't respond."

But websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube do have advantages for both MPs and computer-savvy members of the public.

"The advantages for parties is that the internet can reach out to a wide, different and mass audience in a cost effective way. It can also reach out to the micro-communities that traditional media can't," Campbell, says.

Smith spreads out the argument somewhat. "It is a good thing if any constituent can have immediate access to their MP online, and to stay in touch and see what they're doing in a convenient and open space; it adds a new dimension to a previously rather time consuming process of writing letters and making phone calls," he adds.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all have a presence on social media websites and YouTube and services like Tweetminister offer voters a chance to connect with politicians.

But what effect will the rise of the internet in politics have on traditional methods of campaigning?

Whether it comes to friends or work, social media is not a substitute for face-to-face contact. The same can be said for politics.

"Internet campaigning will never replace personal interaction; knocking on doors and leafleting is still where the battles will be won and lost - particularly in marginal seats," Smith says.

In terms of tools for communication the internet is big business, with a reported 29.4 million people accessing at least one social networking site in one month alone last year.

But how important is the internet actually going to be in the next election? The internet was present, if slightly less influential during both the 2001 and 2005 general elections.

Both Facebook and YouTube had been created by the time of the last general election in 2005 but it might not be until 2010 when these sites, and micro-blogging sensation Twitter, really influence the UK's political scene.

The US Presidential election in 2008 demonstrated how the internet can be utilised successfully in an election race.

"In the most recent high-profile defining election, the US presidential election, the internet was important for real-time news communication and rebuttal. I suspect it will be the same here in 2010," Smith argues.

But can British politics adapt quickly enough to really utilise the possibilities of using the internet to win an election? Iain Dale has his doubts.

"The internet will have an influence on the next general election but not be as important as people think. Our electoral cycle and system means that we cannot just import the same internet campaigning methods used in the United States. Email is the main thing for political parties to utilise. Most other things are gimmicky and attract publicity but attract few votes," he says.

There are those that do admit that politics is being dumbed down, but even then there are positives to take from this political change.

"That is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. You can reach a demographic group which doesn't engage with newspapers, TV or radio news," Dale says.

As Campbell puts it, one man's dumbing down is another's alternative debate.

"Politics is possibly getting diluted and dumbed down but that is not always a bad thing. There needs to be varied spaces online for different kinds of debate," he adds.

It will only be later this year when we will see the true extent of the internet's political importance. The next general election will not be won or lost because of an announcement on Twitter or a YouTube video, but the way politicians do their job and the way voters are getting their information is changing.


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