Insights from the UK and beyond
The Twitter election?
All the main parties are putting time into Twitter in the run-up to the election with the Conservatives saying it’s taking up a fifth of the capacity of their digital campaign team. If the significance of a new medium is measured by the number of political gaffes it transmits then Twitter can lay claim to having arrived following David Cameron’s outburst on Absolute Radio last summer, last month’s ‘scumgate’ episode involving Labour MP David Wright and the hacking of the Twitter accounts of politicians including Energy Secretary Ed Miliband.
Twitter is very much centred on personalities and when BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson declared earlier this month that the service had helped turn Sarah Brown into one of the most influential figures in British politics via a following of more than 1.1 million for the Prime Minister’s wife it underlined how disruptive micro-blogging might be.
But Twitter is only one of a number of social networks being used in campaigning. There’s a colourful patchwork of online media including blogs, spoof sites, YouTube, Facebook and the parties’ own social networking sites. So I asked Alberto Nardelli, one of the co-founders of the political monitoring service Tweetminster, for his assessment of the role Twitter will play:
@albertonardelli: People and not social media will win the election, yet tools like Twitter can play a key role in mobilising, engaging and communicating with people. I think that Twitter will play a significant role in the election alongside other “new elements”, such as the TV debates, Facebook, YouTube etc. Specifically, I believe Twitter will play an interesting role in terms of its impact on the news agenda, party morale and in terms of framing topics – the perception that people have of key issues.
@markjones: What differences do you see between the parties in the way they are using Twitter?
@albertonardelli: As candidates are using Twitter differently it’s hard to define use by party – some candidates only broadcast, others engage, many use it to liaise with the media and as a platform for rebuttal. In general terms though, the Conservatives tend to be more effective in distributing the party line cohesively with activity driven mainly by CCHQ staff and its lines (NB: this doesn’t necessarily mean that such an approach is orchestrated), while Labour tends to be more “passionate” at a grassroots level with Twitter activity led by its candidates. The Liberal Democrats are somewhere between the two approaches. All three parties are fairly active in criticising each other.
@markjones: What do you think lies behind the relatively low take-up of Twitter by Conservative and LibDem politicians compared to Labour?
@albertonardelli: Relative to their number of MPs, the LibDems are actually well represented on Twitter and on many metrics perform better than the two main parties. (A report that we will release next week will outline some of these findings.) In terms of differences between Labour and the Conservatives, I think partially it reflects that the Conservatives are more active on other social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook, yet at the same time it reflects the fact that the Conservatives are more apt at effectively communicating their message coherently from the top, while Labour has a more active base often times driven more by passion than strategic messaging, and as a communications platform, Twitter better fits the latter dynamics.
@markjones: What is it about Twitter that seems to produce gaffes from politicians? I’m thinking of remarks from David Cameron and David Wright and salacious tweets from the accounts of Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman.
@albertonardelli: I actually think it brings out the human side of politicians. While the examples are negative, there are many others which are positive. It’s about authenticity, and I think that’s a positive in politicians. There are of course risks and downsides, which politicians need to manage, and even Obama slipped when he called Kanye West a jackass! As a side point – the Miliband and Harman tweets were the result of phishing attacks – the tweets were not sent by them.
@markjones: What trends are you seeing in the way that political news is handled via Twitter?
@albertonardelli: This is one of the most interesting areas of Twitter’s impact – driven by three core trends: 1) journalists are playing a key role in distributing news and commentary (independently of the media they work for) 2) news (and how issues are framed on Twitter) trickles up from Twitter into newspapers, sites and the news agenda: what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. These are not Twitter-related stories, but how political stories are discussed, trend and are framed on Twitter. 3) the way media, commentators, journalists and politicians “debate” to frame and spin a story. Which angle has greater reach is likely to have significant impact. All this has an impact beyond Twitter and how the general public receives news and consequently perceives issues.
@markjones: Do you think that Twitter is playing a role in speeding up the news cycle? I’m thinking of the role that it played in checking out the National Bullying Helpline story before mainstream media organisations could do earlier this month.
@albertonardelli: Absolutely, it is not only speeding up the news cycle and has enabled a shift from a news cycle to a news stream where stories and angles are shaped and spread by numerous players (sources, journalists, commentators and members of the public) on a level playing field in real time. The outcomes of the stream also trickle back up and influence the news agenda itself.
@markjones: How important do you think the Twitter notion of ‘trending topics’ will be?
@albertonardelli: While I don’t think trending topics will define the news agenda, they will definitely impact coverage – by complementing a story and by amplifying which news stories are discussed more widely.
@markjones: Are you seeing anything interesting in the use of ‘sentiment analysis’ of political tweets (or any other social media)?
@albertonardelli: There are quite a few interesting trends emerging – specifically around how the web reacts instantly to a story that breaks, which influences how the story is then perceived, and secondly in terms of party morale, which to some extent is reflective of how a party feels about a story and its impact.
A key point around sentiment analysis, is that it is only one element of what should be a holistic look at multiple trends – for example volume (how widely a story is discussed), associated terms (which elements of a story are most discussed), influencers (which individuals and sources are framing and driving the debate) and geography (is the issue local or national). Sentiment is but one layer of a wider and more complex context.
@markjones: What role do you expect Twitter to play during the televised Prime Ministerial debates?
@albertonardelli: I believe Twitter will play an important role in measuring the pulse and instant reaction to the debate and the ‘raw emotion’ as the debates unfold. And possibly more importantly, the instant reactions will have an impact on how the debates are perceived and reported. In short, besides the ‘event-within-the-event’ that Twitter will provide, to some extent it may influence the outcome by helping to shape how the debates are then reported and analysed.
@markjones: What do you make of the fact that the Prime Minister’s wife has one of the biggest followings of anyone in Britain?
@albertonardelli: I think Sarah Brown is a fantastic tweeter and uses the platform to mobilise people and support around the issues she cares about. She hasn’t used the tool politically and never comments on political issues.
Of course, indirectly, and independently of what she tweets, some might claim that there is some level of influence on peoples’ opinion of the Prime Minister. But only to the same extent that the same people will expect Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy to have some sort of political impact. In reality elections aren’t decided by such indirect elements.