Twitter’s fun, but let’s not pretend it’s revolutionising democracy

As a local councillor, I want to reach my constituents and make sure they can reach me.

If I put out a leaflet it costs a bit and takes a while to deliver, and I can reach thousands of constituents.

I write a blog post and then let people know about it by email – that reaches a few hundred (and it’s much quicker and cheaper).

Or I can tweet and reach about ten.

Because, despite the promise of Twitter as providing a great two way link between politicians and those they represent, it’s a long way from achieving that.

The reason? Twitter for politicians is much like political websites (such as  Lib Dem Voice, ConHome or LabourList). It’s mainly political types talking to each other. Or, more commonly, shouting abuse at each other. Just the sort of thing that turns ordinary voters off.

To see that, you just need to look at the sort of tweets political types tend to make.

Take Tom Harris MP, a top political tweeter with nearly 5,000 followers (including me). Tom spends a lot of time attacking his political opponents, some time joking, gossiping, plugging blog posts, mentioning what he’s watching on TV and that sort of thing.

What Tom almost never does is use Twitter to engage his non-political constituents about things of interest to them.

That’s an example, not a criticism.  Most political tweeters are much the same. After all, talking to constituents on Twitter is like making a speech in a deserted village hall. In theory everyone could wander in, but in reality very few do.

So we use Twitter for all the things Tom does and a few more besides, but certainly not to engage our voters in two-way conversations very often – there are much more effective ways to do that. Maybe that will change one day, but not just yet.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. Just over a year ago, a Harvard study found that

more than half of all people using Twitter updated their page less than once every 74 days.

And most people only ever “tweet” once during their lifetime, the researchers found.

This implies that Twitter’s resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with using Twitter in these sorts of ways, it does make a nonsense of the idea that it’s somehow wonderfully good for democracy to get more and more MPs onto Twitter, or that anyone should be criticised for not using it, or not using it as much as some of the rest of us do.

Tom Harris presumably finds the politico-banter of Twitter worthwhile, or at least fun. For most other MPs, there are perhaps more important things to be doing.

Iain tweets as CllrIainRoberts. He occasionally takes a break from the banter and small-talk to tweet reports from Stockport Full Council meetings, which then get posted onto his blog where someone might actually read them. Iain was recently named the number two political blogger in Greater Manchester, something which left him both grateful and somewhat bemused.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Don’t you think that twitter is best used for:

    1) Relaying what’s going on at live events
    2) As a friend of mine did – as the aide at a conference receiving questions through twitter to pass to the chair?

  • During the election, I found (as a candidate) that some ppl used Twitter to quiz me, and other candidates, on policy questions. Sure, only a small number, but it did give individuals the opportunity to challenge me and others directly on a specific issue, and get back a succinct, zero-waffle (it’s hard to waffle on Twitter) reply.

  • Twitter is fun, but I doubt its potential as a means of communicating political ideas or having a political debate with many people. You’d always have to wonder – if Twitter ever gets so popular that enough people do follow anybody at all, would they follow politicians/their favourite candidates first?

    Twitter becomes hard work and rather a nuisence, in my experience, if you follow too many people. Thus, even if Twitter following were to become normal ( I honestly don’t think it is at the moment), I wouldn’t expect that local candidates – all but the real celebrities, perhaps – will ever get far enough up that food chain to be able to attract a large enough sector of the electorate.

    In which case those leaflets will have to go out anyway…..

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