Too many Twits? – Twitter, British Politics, and Ed Balls Day

By Babak Moussavi

Ed Balls Day pictureEd Balls Day is a phenomenon that could only happen in the digital age of Twitter. On April 28th 2011, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, accidentally tweeted his own name from his Twitter account. He was presumably searching for what people were saying about him online, and typed in the wrong box. Curiously, he didn’t delete the tweet, and it went viral. Two years later the anniversary generated some hilarious spoofs, even receiving mentions in newspapers and London Underground noticeboards. Mr Balls fortunately took the festivities in good humour, even tweeting his own name, once more.

Twitter is useful for more than comedy though, and its wider role in British politics is growing. In 2009, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was forced to apologise after referring to people who tweet too much as “twats”. He has since joined the microblogging site himself, and, with the help of the Conservative press team, circulates updates about his activities and policy developments. George Osborne, the chancellor, has recently jumped on the bandwagon too.

Whose 140-characters is it anyway?

While Twitter can regularly descend into explosive arguments, contained though by the 140-character limit, it is an excellent tool for disseminating information quickly to an audience of followers, which then often passes it on to others through the ‘retweet’ function. Think-tanks, media outlets, and others – including SJF – who wish to distribute their work make good use of the platform. Politicians also find it useful, with many MPs using Twitter to keep constituents updated about their work (not just their names). 418 MPs have now signed up. Some use it to keep themselves politically relevant, such as Lord (John) Prescott, a former deputy prime minister, who has amassed a huge following through active tweeting. Others have even resorted to dubious techniques to build up their follower count in a short period; Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, was caught out for using the tactic of sporadically following large numbers of people, and then deleting those who did not follow him in return. In the US, Mitt Romney (remember him?) quickly built up his Twitter following during the recent Presidential campaign by using fake accounts.

The egalitarian nature of Twitter is also novel. All users can send each other messages, as well as links – or pictures of Ed Balls-related signs. This often means much abuse is dished out (Mr Cameron is often an unfortunate recipient), but also means genuine questions can be raised by members of the public. Journalists or authors who write errors can be corrected, and, along with companies, advertisers or even private individuals, can even crowdsource for information.

‘Political efficacy’

A recent preliminary report by Demos, a London-based think-tank, attempts to examine the use of Twitter as a tool that opens up new forms of political participation. The study finds that there are more ‘loyal’ followers of MPs from particular political parties (which excludes people who follow MPs from more than one party) than there are formal members of political parties. The Conservatives had, at the time of the report’s publication in April, 430,893 loyal followers, while 316,237 followed Labour. Both parties have fewer than 200,000 formal members.

By analysing the demographic breakdown of these followers, the report finds that people who participate in politics through social media are generally young, and score highly on ‘political efficacy’ – the confidence that they can influence politics. People who score highly here though, tend to have higher incomes and levels of education. The report raises the potential problem that as (or if) social media becomes more potent as a political tool, the existing socio-economic gap that exists between those who tend to participate and those who don’t could be exacerbated.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that social media is shaking things up. Barack Obama’s successful deployment of the tool is well known. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s party, Movimento 5 Stelle, built its campaign success on the radical use of social media. Mr Grillo himself did not even speak to conventional Italian media outlets, preferring instead to communicate directly online with his 1 million Facebook followers (of which, an enormous 200,000 were active volunteers). In India, PR-savvy politicians such as Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, or Shashi Tharoor, a former Under-Secretary General of the UN, have more than 1.5 million followers each. In the UK, Douglas Carswell, a Conservative MP, has suggested that the growing use of social media might hamper a party’s ability to maintain discipline, and could potentially make MPs more directly responsive to their constituents. If so, ‘dinosaur’ MPs who have been fortified in safe seats for decades without needing to pay much attention to their constituency may have to watch out. The practice of democracy would certainly feel the impact.

Watch this space

The government is beginning to take Twitter very seriously: at the behest of Craig Oliver, Mr Cameron’s communications director, the Downing Street press team monitors Twitter forensically. The official 10 Downing Street account has 2.3 million followers. On 29th April the Guardian reported that they would go further and offer ‘in favour’ journalists Twitter story exclusives, with the aim of giving them a reputational advantage over their less sympathetic competitors. This may be an innovative way of trying to control the news cycle, but disturbingly it could dampen press freedom as journalists consider the new costs of being critical.

Twitter’s value is clearly appreciated by more than just politicians: the company is estimated to be worth around $10 billion, despite employing fewer than 1000 people. Facebook’s botched initial public offering last year though suggests scepticism would be prudent, but investors still expect Twitter to be the premier flotation over the next year or so.

Taking the social networking tool so seriously though could have adverse effects. On April 23rd, a hacked tweet from the Associated Press account announced that Barack Obama had been injured in explosions at the White House. The stockmarket briefly fell, but fortunately recovered once the truth was ascertained. Had the tweet referred to something less easy to verify, it might have caused more lasting damage. But still less of an impact, no doubt, than tweeting your own name.

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