Opinion: For the sake of democracy, we need to be civil online

Twitter logoSome of the world’s best-known politicians have messed up on Twitter.

…From the Labour whip who called the Tory opposition “pigs”, to the American Republican politician Jeff Frederick who prematurely tweeted about a Democrat defection, and the Hull councillor who called members of the electorate voting for the opposition ‘retards’.

Therefore, it was hardly surprising when Lib Dem favourite Sir Graham Watson made his first Twitter blunder, tweeting something potentially ill-judged on Wednesday night. A popular MEP winning 80% of first-preference votes in the last Euro selections, opponents jumped on the error, and it seems likely that Sir Graham featured highly in many a Lib Dem’s newsfeed that night.

A few comments were mild; some people might say that some were fair, given the circumstances. However, I was really surprised at the number of rude, offensive, and really quite nasty tweets that users sent.

Whether you like the political party that an elected official represents or not, a lot of representatives work very hard for their constituencies, and it is simply wrong to send such hateful messages to them after a mistake. Would people say such things to their boss or friend, following an off-hand comment? Probably not, as one would not wish to upset a person they have such a close relationship with…

I am sure that I am not the only person to wonder why, as a society, there is such a dislike of politicians. It appears to go beyond a simple distrust, and ultimately, may harm the democratic process.

Electoral turnout has fallen vastly since the 1950s and 1960s.

Therefore, I feel that as Liberal Democrats we should make an effort to be polite to people online, whether they are party members or our opponents. After all, despite our differences of opinion, we are all promoting, and partaking in, democracy. Whilst researching the online bullying of election candidates, I found that many were deterred from running again, after receiving negative comments or messages. This has even happened to me whilst running in a relatively insignificant local election that I was never going to win. Discouraging others from running in elections is undemocratic and something that we as Lib Dems should strive to avoid.

Last year I surveyed a thousand Liberal Democrat local election candidates (and numerous ones from other political parties) and found that over 30% use Twitter. Yet research has shown that social media applications, such as Facebook and Twitter have very little impact, if any, upon final vote share.

Therefore, political representatives that use Twitter or Facebook arguably do not use these sites with the sole aim of re-election in mind; therefore, we should be supportive of such democratic actions. Arguably, the internet can make politics more transparent. We are able to find out what our elected officials are doing at any time of the day, interact with them, and receive topical information relevant to our wards or constituencies, thus improving the democratic process.

In sum, there is nothing wrong with healthy online debate, but perhaps for the sake of democracy, both sides need to think before they speak.

* The author is known to the Liberal Democrat Voice team and worked as an activist and organiser for the Liberal Democrats.

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  • Andy Boddington 22nd Jan '13 - 8:25am

    Thanks for this interesting article Rebecca. Has any of your research been published?

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jan '13 - 9:15am

    I agree. Growing the skin of a rhinoceros is another good way forward. Plus a little bit of scepticism about news that seems too good or too bad to be true. Everyone makes mistakes, many people like to sound off, it can actually be a good thing to be candid – even f things get a bit fruity sometimes – the Twitter world is a big place, and changing them all is likely to be a difficult task. But anyway, good luck!

  • “However, I was really surprised at the number of rude, offensive, and really quite nasty tweets that users sent. “

    Surely if someone makes a comment which many people find grossly offensive it’s not at all surprising that they will respond in kind.

    Isn’t it considerably worse than just a “mistake” to characterise the consequences of the death of hostages as the scoreline of a political football match?

  • Thanks Rebecca for this really relevant opinion post.

    Another interesting (and quite recent) #twittergate was with Chris Steward a Conservative Councillor who made some very clumsy claims over the irrelevance of food banks… What was disappointing about the debate was that – unfortunately as he himself is quite a heavy guy and works in the financial sector – the very personal insults came thick and fast. This really cheapened the debate. It is an interesting case to follow however because it is a nice example of how the twittersphere rallied behind the importance of good and fair debate.

    I did contribute by asking if he would be willing to share an ‘idealised budget’ for an average family on job seeker’s allowance as his claim was simply that society is lacking these skills. He did come back with a positive response. I think in putting across an argument we win far greater recognition by putting forward constructive comments rather than insults or reproach. It won me some more followers.

    It was also a lesson in how contrition wins through – he admitted he’d been silly and naïve. It won him some respect from the wider community. It also highlights the importance of always considering carefully our message – no matter where we post it. He insists they were views from a private email that was not meant to be published… but to express such ill-informed and (frankly) irrational views in any forum is naive in the highest.

    I have had great arguments on twitter with people with completely opposing view. If worse comes to worse try to end on an ‘I respect your view although I don’t agree with it – let’s agree to differ’ note. It usually results in an amicable ceasefire having, in the process, much more deeply informed your own views and, if you’ve handled it positively, won some great followers!

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