The Twitter election

As the election campaigns get underway, there is a new battleground: Twitter. Tweets are the newest weapons in the political arsenal, and Demos is partnering with the Sunday Times to cover this new digital side of politics and campaigning.

Politicians know Twitter will matter in the months ahead. It will influence what some of the electorate sees, drive mainstream news stories, shape which issues become prominent and be a new way for parties to raise money and volunteers. It will break some political careers – it’s already caused the resignation of a member the Shadow Cabinet – and remake others. From senior statesmen to local aspirants, politicians across the UK have rapidly migrated onto this new important political space, making announcements, praising volunteers, answering questions and promoting events. Around 80% of MPs are now on and even more – around 800 – Parliamentary hopefuls are on there too.

Twitter isn’t only for politicians, of course, 15 million other Brits are on Twitter too. This is a place where normal people are finding their own political voices, answering politicians back, and debating with each other – often passionately, sometimes rudely – about the issues that they find important and that affect their lives. People flock to Twitter during the important speeches, manifesto launches, PMQs – cheering, booing, checking facts, and collectively experiencing the events with thousands of others across the UK. They reach out to politicians, offering insults, support, donations, even threats, as well as asking questions, seeking information, even booking appointments. Looking ahead, every major moment of the campaign – the scandals, clashes, speeches and announcements, will provoke significant and important clouds of online commentary and reaction.

The rise of Twitter opens a new window into our national political life. However, all this political activity is happening at an eye-watering scale. MPs are sending 10,000 Tweets every week, and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates another 10,000. The public send around 300,000 Tweets a week back, and during important political events, even more appear. During the independence referendum debates last year, 150,000 Tweets appeared just during the debate itself.

We at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media have been learning how to listen to huge numbers of Tweets for some time. As a collaboration of political researchers from the think tank Demos, and computer scientists from the University of Sussex, we build and use technology to help us collect and analyse the enormous amount of political Tweets that are now produced. At the heart of this technology are algorithms that try to automatically understand the meaning of Tweets. We feed these algorithms with examples of different kinds of Tweet – say some criticising David Cameron and some supporting him – and they learn what language indicate each. They are not perfect of course – there’s always noise when you use machines, but the ones we use get it right about 70% of the time or more.

Listening to Twitter is not like a poll, of course. Not all Brits are on Twitter, and their profile is wildly different from the public as a whole, with barely any older, or lower social class users. More than this, the content is unbalanced, with a small number of users doing a lot of the talking. Whilst a poll tells us what a representative, but usually broadly disinterested, slice of society thinks, on Twitter we hear an unrepresentative but vocal and engaged minority. This is a window into our political life, but a different kind of window to what we’re used to.

For the Sunday Times each week, we’ll be looking at which MPs are the loudest, the most hated and most successful, who makes the biggest gaffes and wins of the week. We’ll be judging how well each of the parties perform on Twitter, and look at the key battleground constituencies where Twitter might matter most. We’ll also look at Twitter’s response to the important political events that lie in front of us – the debates, interviews, resignations and announcements. We’ll see which inspire the greatest reaction from people online, where it was coming from and, most, importantly, what people thought of it.

We’ll also be trying to understand what social media means for politics. We’ll try to understand the new pressures and challenges that parties and politicians face, and how they are changing as a result. We’ll look to see whether it is helping to redraw the balance of power in the UK, whether it helps some kinds of parties and politicians over others, and whether it allows genuine democratic debate, or is simply a forum of abuse.

Above all, we’ll try to learn how, when, and whether it might influence the result at the finish line and the political landscape we wake up to on May 8.