Role of social media in politics

| February 28, 2013

Australia’s youngest ever MP, Wyatt Roy, explains why the ongoing march of social media can make or break a politician. He shares his experience while reflecting on the pros and perils of instant messages, facebook and twitter.

Social media grants the modern politician extraordinary reach. The exemplar is Barack Obama: at the height of his re-election campaign last year, 98 per cent of the American facebook population was friends with somebody who “liked” the US President. Undoubtedly, the contagion that was Obama’s Facebook page blunted the penetration and influence of the traditional media’s campaign coverage.

It may not possess the rigour of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times – in fact, its only virtue may be as a brand recognition tool. But, especially in a climate of declining newspaper sales and weakening broadcast ratings, social media has the great prize of politics in its grasp. Social media has the people.

Today’s voters are far more at home sending an MP  – or sharing with their friends – a facebook message, tweet or email about a matter of political interest, than picking up the telephone, writing a letter or arranging a direct meeting with their elected representative. It’s seen as more direct, and less demanding on one’s time. Perhaps it removes the nervous tension in meeting face-to-face with a politician, too. Sometimes people may think the issue they’re taking to their MP is embarrassingly insignificant, or alternatively, they’re worked up over something and ready to rip the local pollie to pieces.

So social media smoothes and improves access for correspondents, while politicians are able to reply and react to issues of constituency in a much more timely way. And from a platform like facebook, where I’ve got several thousand subscribers, I am able to project my message further.  It’s like speaking with a bigger microphone.

But for all of this, I believe the jury’s out on the question of social media ultimately advancing – or eroding – the Australian political process. And here’s why…

Social media raises the expectations of those who treat it as a conduit to politicians, but at the same time, it limits the elected representative’s ability to effectively respond to any concerns. If you were an MP 20 years ago, you’d walk to the post office in the morning, retrieve your letters, return to your office, read the letters, call up the appropriate ministers or public servants or community individuals and develop a workable response, and write your letters back to the constituents – who’d allow a week or so for that reply to arrive.

These days, that’s a small part of our work. Instead, I get 300 emails a day. And if someone sends me an email at 6.30am and they haven’t had a detailed answer by 8.30am, they’re frustrated.

If somebody sends me a tweet asking about a policy area, they’re upset if I don’t have a detailed response. Yet a tweet is limited to 140 characters. How can you fit a meaningful response into 140 characters? The inherent risk is of the debate being dumbed down.

Another troubling trend is the organised email campaign. When, for example, the live cattle export controversy flared, my office had thousands of emails in hours. Most were created on generic forms from one or two of the leading activists’ sites, and yet, the people who happily filled those forms and clicked and flicked, were often irritated when they didn’t receive a detailed, personalised response.

But the point is, when people haven’t personally invested their own thought into what is, after all, a bulk email, it limits our ability to respond.

The other problem social media presents is its hair-trigger capability. One errant keystroke or a few ill-conceived thoughts from a politician into the “twittersphere” can ruin a career, or perhaps more importantly, take down a good policy.

Wariness results, which again can act as a brake on your instinct to give deeper, more customised answers to queries or concerns.

Scrutiny is fine. But social media, unlike traditional media outlets and the growing band of professional online news sites and blogs, is inclined to be hostage to the loose-lipped and conspiracy theorists. There is no old-style editor keeping the gate of balance and objectivity. The next wave of MPs will be exposed for all their flaws and scars, and the next generation of voters is going to have to accept them regardless. However, I fear very good people will be scared away from coming into Parliament. They aren’t going to want to throw themselves, their families and their friends under that sort of examination.

If we’re not careful, the ongoing march of social media will see politicians engaging more with the people, but getting fewer things done. There’ll be more contact, but less political conviction … and fewer solutions.

What we need, therefore, are strong-willed politicians to rise above the noise.