It is tempting to think of social media as a great enabler of democratic participation. Online platforms lower the bar to contacting politicians; you don’t need to attend a surgery or craft an email to your MP if you know their Twitter handle. During this election, just under half of the 3300 or so candidates competing for votes across the nation maintain public accounts on Twitter – we counted 1533, and are likely to have missed some. Each of these politicians has set up a public stall, inviting users on the platform to bring them into debate; to ask questions, challenge, applaud or troll them.
In theory, this new venue for political interaction provides a valuable opportunity to combat the looming spectre of political disengagement. In practice, however, Twitter’s explicitly public nature can make it an intimidating place for politicians. As a result many retreat behind carefully controlled online personas, using Twitter as they have used media platforms for years – to transmit, but not to converse.
We wanted to investigate the ways in which candidates in the 2017 general elections were using the platform. To this end, we have collected every Tweet sent since the election was announced, sent by the 1533 candidates for whom we could track down Twitter accounts. We’ve then looked at how many of these Tweets were replies – responses to another message on the platform. The results are shown below.
Most candidates are grouped at the bottom left of this graph: they’re not Tweeting very much, so not replying a lot either. Even as candidates spread to the right, sending more messages, most of this interaction is overwhelmingly one-way, representing broadcast, rather than response.
A few candidates, however, visibly buck this trend. Jess Philips and Richard Gadsden, Labour and Lib Dem candidates respectively, have each sent more replies then they have original Tweets, sharing in-jokes, piling into chains of conversation and generally just chatting to people. Gadsden has Tweeted about ‘The Campbellian Monomyth’ (no, me neither), and tells people how tired he is of the current campaign; Philips has swapped opinions on Eurovision contestants and regularly insults those trying to troll her. This kind of public engagement is far from careful messaging sanctioned by party HQ’s – neither candidate tends to use ‘official’ hashtags (#labour, #libdemfightback etc) in conversation, suggesting they’re using Twitter to interact, rather than to solely hammer home the party line. It also offers voters a window into what these politicians are like as people.
A number of candidates – Kevin McNamara and Will Quince, of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are examples – also spend time debating and defending policies with other Twitter users. The resulting threads of replies allow candidates to advertise and defend their personal positions, but also create, in the process, a piecemeal public record of their views on the intricacies of taxation and their preference for Brexit. Furthermore, this record is likely to be permanent. It is very difficult to know that anything has been truly deleted on social media, especially if you’re a public figure, vying for a seat in parliament.
The scatter of voices in the graph above contains a number of politicians using social media in a rather traditional way – as a means of getting a simple message (“Vote for me!”) seen by as many eyes as possible. Notable here is Dr Teck Khong, a recent convert to UKIP from the Conservatives, who mixes more conversational posts with frequent near-identical messages thanking people for contacting him and asking for their vote; the social media equivalent to sticking flyers through people’s doors, or calling supporters up to confirm their enthusiasm. This tactic isn’t the only noteworthy aspect of Dr. Khong’s online strategy: as a Conservative councillor in 2016, he is reported to have ‘liked’ a number of posts containing anti-Islamic slurs, including one Tweet calling Islam an ‘evil’ religion.
The majority of candidates, however, seem far less keen on Twitter as a platform for public engagement. Only a quarter of candidates send more than one reply a day, and 164 candidates have sent no replies whatsoever, though a third of these Tweet at least daily. Again, there are a range of possible explanations for this, from an understandable reluctance to invite abuse to a simple disinterest in Tweeting. Party seniority may also have something to do with a reluctance to a publicly engage – Tim Farron, who the field in replying in 2015, has maintained a notably quieter profile as his party’s leader during the current campaign. Some politicians, or their PR teams, seem to be playing a very careful game.
It is difficult to know how these tactics will affect the arcane arithmetic involved in winning seats. To equate social media alone to likely vote share is to flirt with nonsense; even amongst the technophile demographic there are too many confounding factors involved. What the above does tell us, however, is that some politicians have grasped the potential for platforms like Twitter to allow them to get themselves across to those they want to represent – not only to listen to people, but to converse with them, to share jokes, trade insults, even debate policy. For a minority of the candidates in this year’s election, and the Twitter public deciding whether to vote for them, social media is starting to fulfil it’s promise of a new, more engaged, much chattier politics.
Correction: This article was amended on 6th June 2017 to clarify that Kevin McNamara is a Liberal Democrat rather than SNP candidate.