A politician’s life on Twitter is rarely uneventful. I have written in defence of all the goodwill and positive communication this election has seen on social media. But slip-ups are costly. As the election gets closer and the debates, broadcasts and gaffes begin, Twitter is watching.
My research group CASM looked at how the #BattleForNumber10 went down on Twitter yesterday evening, running an analysis with Qlik during the debates to track the ‘boos’ and the ‘cheers’ being sent during the hour. The results gave it to Ed, but the most striking aspect of the chart was the hammering Cameron took as he was mauled by Paxman (who himself was roundly booed on social media as his interview-style became increasingly frenzied and personal).
This has been a theme in the campaign. The most widely shared link on the day of the budget was www.georgelostmytax.com, a website that claims to calculate how many seconds it would take for the Chancellor to lose your yearly contribution in tax. The most budget bile was saved for Danny Alexander and his ‘alternative budget’, a scene that could be included in a ‘Thick of It’ outtakes reel without any edits. One cannot help but wonder what exactly the Liberal Democrat comms team were hoping for when they armed Danny with an ill-fitting suit and a yellow lunchbox, but it did not take Twitter long to see the funny side.
Taking politicians to task is one of Twitter’s favourite, and, one might say, most democratically important functions. It isn’t always satire, either. Rotherham is central to the ire directed at Labour. Emily Thornberry’s criticism of ‘buy-to-rent’ landlords last weekend was immediately branded hypocritical. Thornberry of all people will know the role Twitter can play in holding politicians accountable for the mistakes they make.
There is an admirable principle beneath all this: to every person a voice. Twitter is anything but a perfect digitally democratic platform. Its shortcomings are well-documented: its demography, its word-count, the ‘echo-chamber’ effect a list of people to follow produces. Another fundamental flaw is its profit model, which allows you to buy an audience and amplify your voice for a few quid (though that does sound rather familiar). But despite all this, the principle holds firm: to each person a voice.
It is said that voting gives you a voice. It doesn’t – it gives you a vote. Media gives you a voice: publishing a letter in a newspaper, doing an interview, writing to your MP, and, perhaps, sending a Tweet. The step-change is that despite reaching a massive audience, the views and voice are both yours. There are no editors on social media. There is no person or organisation too big or too important to avoid criticism, as is frequently the case with mainstream media – the Telegraph’s relationship with HSBC is a good example. Dissent, question, slander: there is nobody to edit your words, nobody tutting at your tone of voice or what you believe.
But there is a less palatable side to all this. A million people expressing their opinions is a democracy. A million people expressing the same opinion can be a mob. And on Twitter, there is often the digital pack mentality. Jon Ronson, in his new book, has taken a look at how digital lynch mobs can often irrationally, brutally, and unfairly shame their targets, with little care for justice or consequence. In the end, that’s perhaps the unfortunate price to pay. If you need more evidence about the democratic role social media can play, take a look at the countries which suppress it.