Social Media Carves out a Fifth Estate

The increasing integration of new media technologies, and particularly social media, into our personal and working lives has heralded an enormous amount of debate and discussion about their transformative potential. In politics, this has centred on the capacity for social media to bring political leaders closer to their constituents – but it has also inspired a great deal of commentary around how the demands of the social media age are changing the scope and scale of leaders’ responsibilities, and forcing parties to devote substantial resources to keep up with a conversation that never sleeps.

There’s no doubt that social media has fully immersed itself in the political landscape: the vast majority of parties, MPs and Government departments, and the think tanks and charities that circle around them, have Twitter accounts, and you are just as likely to see journalists in the Press Gallery tweeting during PMQs as jotting down in shorthand. But this can mean that social media is often dogged by claims of being an ‘echo chamber’ for the political elite – simply an alternative battleground for the jostling and posturing already taking place in the Lobby.

Here at Demos, our Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) is interested in exploring both the positive and negative roles that social media can play in democracy – and particularly, whether such platforms can, in practice, help to build more positive and connected societies, based on stronger relationships between governments, citizens and civil society. One of the ways in which we have been approaching this is through building new types of ‘big data’ technology and techniques, to help make sense of what is becoming an increasingly noisy digital environment.

In Britain, social media’s place in the political sphere is often talked about as having displaced traditional media; both this and the previous Election have been touted as ‘the social media Election’ – though of course in 2010 it was the most anachronistic of traditional media forms, the televised political debate, which stole all the attention. While social media has certainly evolved to take a prominent role in British political culture over the past five years, it is by no means disenfranchising the ongoing authority of the influential dailies and broadcast media. Rather, what we are seeing is social media both supporting and reinforcing the activities of the traditional media and its protagonists – giving further power and reach to established and influential voices.

But there is another, important function that social media plays within British politics, which somewhat complicates its position within the ‘Fourth Estate’. As our recent report on the way in which the contentious issue of immigration is discussed on Twitter has demonstrated, social media platforms also create an opening for those outside of Westminster to protest and campaign towards those with the power to affect change. This is an important and welcome development, and a positive manifestation of the ‘disruptive’ nature of social media in advanced democracies. In two of the report’s case studies, a substantial number of tweets about immigration came from those outside of politics and the media – interestingly, though, a large portion of these were from individuals with some associated or vocational interest in the issue of immigration. In this respect, the ‘echo chamber’ theory holds; though perhaps it is tempered by being a somewhat more expansive chamber that includes actors of the broader public policy and academic spheres.

What was fascinating about the nature of these tweets is that they were, on the whole, rather positive about immigration. What’s more, they were by and large focused not on expressing support for immigration itself, but rather on criticising both politicians and the media for what they regarded to be an alarmist and reductive approach to public discourse about the issue. Here, we see two critical factors in play.

Firstly, that social media is – rather than an homogenous extension of the traditional media – increasingly carving out its own space as a ‘Fifth Estate’, in which the mass media can be critiqued on its performance as the ‘watchdog’ of the State. In this respect, it is less a platform for reporting, analysing and commenting on the issues of the day, but rather for reflecting on the success and failures of democracy and society itself. While Twitter may be open to all, the self-reflexive nature of this function suggests that those likely to be engaging with it in the political context are those most politically interested or connected; indeed, one of the most startling findings of CASM’s broader research into social media ahead of the Election is just how male-dominated political debate is, considering Twitter itself generally skews female.

Secondly, we see that social media is increasingly out of step with broader public opinion on issues such as immigration, strengthening the oft-discussed supposition of Twitter holding a liberal bias. This means that caution must be exercised when drawing on Twitter as a gauge of the public mood, as it cannot reliably be seen to be a proxy for opinion polling. CASM, particularly through its project with Ipsos MORI and the University of Sussex, funded by Innovate UK, will be examining ways to address this in the months ahead.

These findings inevitably raise the question: if Twitter is an echo chamber for the liberal, politically interested (male) elite, then how much time or efforts should parties really be spending on engaging with it, and what is the value in continuing to study its impacts in advanced democracies, with such established relationships within the political sphere?

These are important questions, but we must remember how nascent these platforms are, and how superficial the attempts of political leaders to truly harness their potential as a means of connecting with constituents has been. Yes, digital technologies have utterly transformed the way in which journalism is practised in advanced democracies, but their capacity to reengage voters in a time of unprecedented disengagement has not yet truly been realised. Despite being free and readily available, many of the issues of access that have plagued politics and the media over centuries continue to shape and restrict the use of social media in the political sphere today – namely, that access and provision itself does not constitute engagement.

This report is not a ‘doom and gloom’ story – it reveals some positive seeds of change, such as this emergent ‘Fifth Estate’ function, and, despite the limited diversity of participants, the sheer scale of Twitter activity (often hundreds of thousands of tweets were captured in response to one particular immigration-related political event) means it is important that we further study the behaviours and perspectives exhibited on the platform, and how they change over time. One can imagine that, faced with a Twitter environment increasingly ready to cast judgement as to their own performances, both the media and politicians may well find themselves having to turn their attentions inward.

The full report, ‘Immigration on Twitter: Understanding Public Attitudes Online’, can be downloaded here.

CASM will continue to lead on social media analysis ahead of the General Election and beyond. Please keep up to date with our work by following us on Twitter.