Over the coming decades, the Internet will reshape politics in ways that it is hard to imagine.
In part this is because the Internet is changing our culture, giving people more choice, and greater freedom to express themselves. We are beginning to live in what has been termed a ‘co-creation’ culture, where ordinary members of the public do not just purchase music, but upload their own songs to MySpace, and don’t just watch TV, but upload their own films to YouTube.
This change is beginning to have an impact on the political world. No longer do people just passively read about politics in the newspapers or hear about it on the evening news. Instead, they express their own opinions about it through the various channels which the Internet provides.
As websites such as WriteToThem.com, Change.org and 38Degrees make it easier and easier, increasing numbers of people are able to lobby their MPs directly, demanding greater responsiveness and openness. It is no longer necessary to turn up at poorly-attended party meetings or wait in constituency surgeries to express an opinion and make yourself heard. Set up a Facebook group on a local issue which attracts a few hundred members, and your voice will be louder, and heard much more clearly.
The bigger changes will come as members of the public move from just expressing their opinions online, and engaging in some lobbying activities, to expecting that the world of politics, government and public services become as responsive to individual demands as the rest of society. In a world of almost endless choice on Amazon, or when virtually anything can be bought and sold on eBay, a system which limits political choice to a handful of parties every five years will seem increasingly out of touch.
That, however, is a debate for the future. In the present, blogging and social media can play an important role in helping Westminster researchers do their jobs – providing you know how to get the best out of it.
To keep abreast of this, you can follow many members of the Lobby on Twitter. Lists of political journalists on Twitter can be found here:
These lists provide a good example of what Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes, describes as the ‘news stream’: the replacement of a single printed news story with a constant flow of news, updates, reaction and commentary. Guido’s lists on Twitter can be found here.
This concept highlights some of the changes to the traditional world of politics which the Internet has brought about. For example, it has widened the debate and allowed more voices to be heard. This greater diversity of views in turn produces a bigger challenge to anyone seeking to build or maintain a consensus on any issue. So, whilst there are still a small number of dominant voices within the ‘Westminster Village’, it is also undeniable that the discussion space is now more open to voices from outside.
This being the case, one of the most important points of social media is that it’s useful to go to where the conversation is already taking place, rather than expecting people to come to your website or blog or Facebook page.
You should search out issues which affect your constituency, whether it’s a discussion about local maternity services on Mumsnet, or a Facebook group about a local school, or a website set up to oppose a council planning decision. Then, whether your MP agrees with the views being expressed, disagrees with them or wants to find out more background information, leave a comment and invite feedback.
Another vital source of information about activities in your constituency will be the local bloggers. A popular site can have almost as much influence as a local newspaper, so is worthy of attention.
Find out about the most important bloggers and add their RSS feeds to your ‘feed reader’ (free programs, such as Feedly or Newsblur, which alert you whenever something new is published on a website). If you notice a particular post generating a lot of comments from local people, highlight the discussion and suggest your MP takes part in it with a comment of his or her own.
It is important to approach the ‘blogosphere’ with an open mind. For example, the surprisingly extensive birminghamitsnotshit.co.uk published a long list of people who blogged in or about the city.
A useful rule to follow in this area is to make sure you understand the blogger, their views and arguments before getting involved in protracted debate with them. By getting to know their long-standing interests, you will also hopefully avoid confusing in-jokes with serious posts, which would be an embarrassing mistake to make.
As with any research done online, you will want to be cautious about relying on blogs for factual information if you are going to include it in Commons speeches. As always, double-checking is a sensible precaution.
If you are quoting a blogger, do credit them in the speech. Few things will please a blogger more than having a passage from one of their posts quoted in Parliament, and this almost guarantees further pick-up and discussion of the speech in the blogosphere. If the blogger doesn’t realise you’ve quoted them, then send them an email to let them know. If quoting a blogger unfavourably, however, do remember that most will answer back.
Whilst browsing blogs, also take time out to read the comments that have been left. These can also be a useful source of information, pointing out flaws in the blogger’s viewpoint or adding additional information to the story. As you will rapidly notice, some blogs attract a higher proportion of sensible comments than others. Get to know which ones are home to sensible discussion.
It is important to read the viewpoints that are expressed online, but you should also be aware of what you aren’t reading. Think about what perspectives are excluded, and what kind of people write blogs and post comments.
The Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement reported that only seven per cent of Britons have contributed to a discussion or campaign online
or on social media . Whilst it is important to engage with the online audience – given that while it might be small, it is disproportionately noisy and influential – do not expect it to necessarily be representative of the constituency or the public as a whole.
Facebook does better than many in this regard, however, with over 31 million active users in the UK at the start of 2016. For example, it has over two million users aged over 50, and more than three million aged 40 to 49. It is also well balanced in terms of gender, with slightly more women than men using the service.
So effective use of the Internet – its tools, social media services and blogs – can help you to ensure that your MP stays abreast of what happens both in Westminster and in the constituency.
Above all, as numerous politicians have now found out, remember the golden rule of blogging, tweeting or posting comments of any kind: What goes on the web stays on the web, so never post anything anywhere that you wouldn’t be happy to see on the front page of a national newspaper.
- Do read widely
- Don’t quote without attribution
- Do understand the blogger
- Don’t publish anything without thinking
- Do look at reader comments
- Don’t rely on blogs for facts
- Do think about the voices not heard
This guide is provided by Working for an MP (w4mp). Most of the material in Guides is subject to Crown copyright protection. Unless otherwise indicated material may be reproduced free of charge in any format or media without specific permission. This is subject to the material being reproduced accurately and not being used in a derogatory manner or in a misleading context. For more details see our Copyright page
|A Working for an MP Guide|
|Introduction to Political Blogs and Social Media|
|First Published||7 May 2010||w4mp|
|Last Updated||2 April 2016||w4mp|
|Last Reviewed||2 April 2016||w4mp|
|Unamended version copied from old Guide|