Do Tweets win seats? – Micro-blogging and politics

Politicos use Twitter to communicate with voters, activists and the media. It’s sociable and fashionable. It’s useful but it has its limits.

And if this was Twitter I’d stop there, for the paragraph above is a 140-character summary of the popular micro-blogging service and its emerging role in politics. Having the luxury of a whole chapter, rather than a couple of lines, I can expound a bit. But sometimes I relish Twitter’s brevity and the way it gives me both the discipline and the excuse not to write at length.

Twitter was to the 2010 General Election what blogging had been to the previous one: novel, topical, conversational, personal. Blogging, in long and short form, is good for quickly spreading campaign messages, news and rumours and it’s freely accessible for anyone with an internet connection.

When I first subscribed to the service a couple of years ago, few news outlets or political candidates were tweeting, although the three main parties were already using it to link to party information and election results.

Over the past year, Twitter has been increasingly taken up by MPs and councillors, bloggers and journalists, even government departments, but crucially by thousands of people who are none of the above, but want to converse with them on an equal footing.

The parties continue to tweet, but now candidates, MPs and party leaders themselves are using the medium, with varying degrees of skill.

Stella Creasy, newly-elected Labour MP for Walthamstow, says it’s important to be authentic:

My big issue is that how people use Twitter shouldn’t be different to any other form of campaigning. I use Twitter to be online how I am offline – to interact with local residents. Great new technologies make that easier, but you also have to want to do that: talk rather than tweeting press releases.

News organisations such as the BBC and the Guardian offer a variety of feeds while individual journalists are building up their own following, posting links to their reports and blogs as well as snippets from their everyday lives.

Twitter has a lot in common with blogging, its older and burlier sibling: it’s easy to share opinions, news stories and links to other items online. You can illustrate your posts with photos, videos and audio clips. Readers can comment in the form of replies. But younger, nimbler Twitter has the advantage of being quick and portable. On Twitter, news travels fast – making this morning’s paper seem out of date when events can be shared instantly, stories retweeted (forwarded) in a couple of clicks.

Liberal Democrat blogger Caron Lindsay told me,

To me, the most exciting thing about Twitter is that it gives everyone – from Cabinet ministers to MPs to councillors, from activists to people who aren’t in politics – the chance to interact on a level playing field. This can and does make political debate healthier.

On his blog, the Canadian writer David Eaves explained, “Twitter is my newspaper”, and indeed this is how I’ve used it over the past couple of years, as a blogger, candidate, activist and avid consumer of current affairs. And I get to choose the columnists. They include friends, politicians, entertainers, businesses, and some of them even are columnists. Twitter has kept me updated on local events, Westminster rumblings, and blogs from colleagues, rivals and commentators. It’s told me whether London Underground is running normally and yes, occasionally, what my friends had for breakfast. I’ve used it to answer constituents’ questions, to arrange appearances in the mainstream media and to tell volunteers about campaign sessions.

If a good press release or blog post tells the reader who, what, when, where and why, a tweet only has room for two things: “What?” and, “So what?” The economy of the medium makes you think about clarity and why your message is relevant – a good discipline for politicians and bloggers alike.

As well as a source of stories for journalists, it’s become a rich seam of information for analysts, who have used it to track sentiment and popular topics. PR agency Edelman focused on analysing Twitter during the General Election saying that “Twitter users are younger, more engaged, more forthright and honest about their views” and were a group whose political preferences were less easy to pin down. They identified that the Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg was attracting the largest number of positive tweets, particularly around the times of the TV Leaders’ debates in April. #Iagreewithnick and #nickcleggsfault were just two popular sentiments on Twitter, the latter a tongue-in-cheek response to negative newspaper coverage of the Liberal Democrat leader. They were memes which spread around Twitter like a show of hands at a public meeting.

It was during events such as the TV Leaders’ debates that the social network came into its own. While the main event was taking place on the older medium of TV, which drew audiences averaging nine million, Twitter was a unique and accessible place to gauge instant reaction. Twittering critics shared jokes, quotes and incisive commentary. At the same time, supporters of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party held their own Twitter protests at their party’s exclusion from the debates, hoping to get their topic trending and so “make the news”.

Tweetminster reported that 33,095 tweeters posted 154,352 tweets during and related to the third TV debate, peaking at 51.27 tweets per second. The site’s analysis concluded that viewers using Twitter rated Clegg the highest, although his scores dropped the most during the debate, while Cameron and Brown’s were closely matched.

Other shared experiences on Twitter this year have included rallies and conferences, the tweets made searchable by using hashtags – those one-word descriptions prefixed with a ‘#’ symbol. MPs have tweeted from the House of Commons, and councillors from the Town Hall. It’s been a useful channel for eyewitness accounts of events especially in the absence of other types of report.

On 6 May, while I was busy helping to get out the vote, away from radio or TV, Twitter was my news ticker, and I also sent reminders to my followers to cast their votes. After polls closed, Twitter gave me unparalleled coverage of the election results, often keyed directly from the candidates’ own mobile phones: “Sorry guys – I lost,” was Willie Rennie’s downcast tweet, just after the Dunfermline result was declared. I watched from my own count as messages from every corner of the country streamed across my phone’s screen, their brief sentences belying months of hard work: triumphs won or hopes dashed.

Since the election, Twitter has remained an important way to share in the discussion about the new Coalition government and the Labour leadership election. The Queen’s Speech and the June Budget were swiftly summarised in byte-sized pieces. Now, campaigns are being launched and followings built in preparation for the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011.

Alberto Nardelli, co-founder of tweetminster.co.uk, says,

General Election 2010 saw no single ‘internet event’ but social media such as Twitter became embedded in the ‘media cycle’ providing a level playing field and affecting how issues were perceived.

And for anyone still tempted to forget that they’re using a public, broadcast medium, Alberto cautions:

What happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter.

Since Twitter has enabled politicians to issue a public statement before you can say, “press officer”, it’s not just been the big happenings that have made headlines. “A man can get a reputation from very small things,” wrote Sophocles, or as Professor Rachel Gibson of the University of Manchester puts it: “Loose tweets lose seats.” Unless a user locks their account, (so that only pre-approved followers can see the updates) the tweets can be read by anyone – and that includes opponents.

The Scottish Labour party dropped Stuart MacLennan as their candidate for Moray, after they were alerted to some of his tweets which made offensive remarks about the elderly and described some well-known politicians with a range of expletives. Although these messages were posted before MacLennan became a candidate, they were later picked up by the Scottish Sun. MacLennan apologised for his remarks while candidates everywhere, their online lives flashing before them, learned another Twitter lesson.

In 2009 John Dixon, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Cardiff, called Scientologists “stupid” in a tweet. Some six months later, a member of the Church of Scientology made a complaint, although they weren’t following Dixon’s Twitter account when he posted the message. At the time of writing, Councillor Dixon faces a disciplinary hearing for posting the comment on his councillor-related Twitter account. His original tweet has now received widespread attention, more than a year after it was posted. Despite appearing on a public platform, it took amplification by an offended party and the press before readers beyond Twitter knew about it – and suddenly Dixon trebled his number of followers in one day. Although he called it an “ephemeral comment” it took him a 1300-word blog post to fully explain his reasons for making it.

The Conservative Party’s hashjacked Twitterfall (basically some internet-gobbledegook which means unmoderated messages sneaking into a set of tweets being displayed on someone’s website) was another unfortunate Twitter event. The Conservatives set up a stand-alone website called Cash Gordon, to highlight the Prime Minister’s links with the Unite Union. They asked supporters to tweet using the #cashgordon hashtag. Any tweets with the hashtag would show up on the site, and many did appear, though not all were helpful. When the tweets began to include mockery, rude words and redirects to porn sites, the Labour Party and more, the Cash Gordon site was hastily pulled.

Now that Twitter has been tested in a major set of UK elections, what’s the verdict?

Blogger Guido Fawkes was initially sceptical of its value and said in May 2009 that Twitter was a “fad that will soon disappear” and asked a blogging conference, “How profound can you be in 140 characters?” Now he’s experimenting with “Social Guido” at his site, offering (as www.LibDemVoice.org also does) buttons to help readers share posts on Facebook, Twitter or by email. Guido has stopped using Facebook himself but admits, “Twitter is different, nowadays it sends 5% of the traffic to the blog.”

Richard Osley, Deputy Editor of the Camden New Journal, told me that as a local journalist, Twitter helped him promote election blogging foremost and to tap into the local conversation. He warns that lazy journalists may expect the best stories to be handed to them with a tweet, but that Twitter will also grow in importance as a networking tool for journalists:

Politicians and journalists are still feeling their way with Twitter and it is difficult to gauge what effect it had on the overall result of the General Election, if any. Some candidates may have been tweeting away thinking it was possible that voters would see their messages and switch allegiances. That seems a bit of a far-fetched hope to me. I don’t think one tweet or a barrage of tweets changed voter intention to a game-changing value. More likely, Twitter was useful in helping parties organise their campaigns locally and to inspire like-minded people to join them, encouraging them to get off the sofa. There is a danger that a hundred retweets can make politicians and journalists feel complacent that they are in tune with voter intention. It is, at the moment at least, too primitive a survey of public opinion. But Twitter has benefits too. Where politicians – and journalists for that matter – use it best, is when they post and respond, creating a two-way connection.

My favourite Twitter moment as a candidate this year came when I experimented with location-based tweeting. While out campaigning one Saturday, I tweeted, “Meeting voters in Romford Market” with a link to a map that pinpointed my location. Meanwhile a Romford resident sat at home, looking up the constituency’s candidates for the General Election. Discovering that I was on Twitter, she “followed” me (subscribed to my tweets). Then, seeing that I was in the local market square, ten minutes from her home, she came straight out to find me! I was delighted when she introduced herself and we had a quick chat about the area and its needs. Electioneering meets orienteering, you might say.

For my own amusement (and as a reminder) I made a Google Map of the places I campaigned in the run-up to the General Election, with photos, videos and audio clips. Voters and volunteers could see where and how I had been active.

As with any online campaigning, it’s never a replacement for getting out on the streets and doorsteps, but as my surprise meeting showed, the virtual soapbox can complement the physical one. Curiously, I saw another tweet that day about another of the local candidates, which said,

He needs more presence on Twitter, talking with the people. Not merely being present outside the station is enough anymore.

Now that Twitter has taken its place among the other political communication channels, the message is still more important than the medium. While Twitter has been a useful tool for politicians and their commentators over the past couple of years, the platform is still evolving as a networking tool and producing new features. By the next General Election, there may well be another social network, or another phenomenon entirely, that will be proclaimed as the next campaign must-have.

Twitter may feel like a “community” but in elections, the physical constituency is where the votes are counted. MPs, councillors and candidates may have a number of local followers and some of them (such as the press) may amplify the messages among their own audiences. There will be a greater number who don’t use Twitter, but who do receive email and read the local newspaper or hyperlocal blog.

As Twitter and micro-blogging continue to evolve over the next year, commentators and constituents should keep holding politicians to account. And campaigners’ aims should be the same: translating venting and virals to volunteers and votes.

Helen Duffett was the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Romford in the 2010 General Election. She is one of the editors at Liberal Democrat Voice (www.LibDemVoice.org) and was once named as the UK’s 36th most influential political Twitterer. See if you can figure out why, by following @helenduffett on Twitter.

This chapter appeared in The Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2010-2011, available to buy here, published on 9th September.

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