Targeting hardship: How MPs can use social media listening to inform policy

This article has been written by Aleks Collingwood, Partnership Insight Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and is the second in a series explaining how social media listening could be used by researchers to understand poverty, as well as how charities and other third sector organisations can use these findings in their services and how MPs, policy researchers and decision makers can use social media listening to inform policy. The programme also features a report, which you can read here.


Yesterday we published our new groundbreaking research that uses social media listening analytics to explore the experience and impact of poverty, by listening to those with direct experience of the issues we care about.

In my previous blog, I described the reasoning behind this project, how we did it (with Demos), and what we found to be the main things that people in poverty are talking about online. I also laid out our plans to make sure we reach the people that have the power to tackle the root causes of poverty.

In this instance, to reach MPs and policy makers and make them think about how they can use this information to make informed decisions.

Listening. Real time. Depth.

The reactions we have had so far about this research have been really positive, which is very encouraging. Most of the blog comments highlighted three things:

The power of listening. How can the public and third sectors really understand what is going on if they are not listening?

Real time insight. How can MPs and other decision makers make well informed decisions if they don’t know what’s going on in real time?

The depth it brings. Finding out what people are sharing with their peers is unique. It demonstrates the complexity of issues. The issues may be incredibly complex but there are simple things MPs could do.

What MPs need to know…

People experiencing poverty feel that political systems are not addressing the multifaceted issues of poverty and hardship well enough. There are real divisions over whether they think MPs can help, with many people feeling that they are misrepresented in politics and in the media — and that policy fails to meet people’s needs.

There is a lot of concern that MPs simply do not understand the needs of vulnerable people. Some referenced parliamentary questions as evidence that MPs are detached from the reality of poverty, and the problematic implications this has for policy and decision making. This chimes with another JRF piece of research on swing voter views on hardship ahead of the next election. The participants didn’t think that politicians take things seriously enough because they themselves are not experiencing the effects of poverty and the cost of living and are unable to empathetically put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

People are talking about the impact of how MPs view and talk about vulnerable people and those on benefits can have on society when it is done in a stigmatising way. Some feel that the media and DWP are trying to deliberately turn people against those who claim benefits, which is particularly worrying and distressing for them. Some feel that policy decisions are politically motivated to isolate and stigmatise the poorest and most vulnerable.

What MPs need to do…


MPs and policy makers really need to listen to what people with lived experience of poverty and hardship are talking about. This research can help them do this. They need to understand, empathise, and be able to address the problems that are being discussed in a non-stigmatising way. They need to demonstrate that they ‘get it’.

Build trust.

Social media listening tells us that everyone believes that it is the responsibility of the government and MPs to address the problem of poverty, and that includes a plan to deal with the current cost of living crisis. However, they are pessimistic about their ability to do so. Many people who we listened to think it would be good for politicians to spend time with communities that are struggling to see what it is really like and to build up a level of trust.


It’s not just that people experiencing poverty can’t buy food — what people are talking about is much more serious than that. The long-term effects of being in debt, growing up in poverty, or being stuck in a toxic relationship because of the financial situation you are in, are all very damaging, particularly on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Some of the knock-on effects we are already seeing are the increased pressure on public services, how much harder it is for people to move into work, and even more concerning — the increase in crisis calls.

ALL political parties need to have a plan to address this level of hardship. Listening to what people are actually discussing with their peers, in real time, can help them do this.

This is one of a series of blogs about how social media listening could be used by researchers to understand poverty, charities and other third sector organisations in their services, and MPs, policy researchers and decision makers to inform policy. The methodology will also be highlighted by Demos in an additional blog.

You can find the full report here: How People Talk About Poverty and Hardship Online. If you would like to find out more about our Insight & Infrastructure team, or this project in particular, please get in touch with [email protected][email protected] or [email protected].