Is the Power of Social Media in Politics a Good Thing?

Social media is big. Bigger, in fact, than even the most liberal commentator would have predicted a decade ago. It influences every part of our life, where we go, what we do and how we do it, that includes playing a big part in politics. But is that a good thing?

In this two part series I will examine both sides of the social media in politics debate.

Direct Communication

Until the dawn of social networks, especially Twitter, often the only way to communicate with politicians was to email them. This is a form of contact that can easily be brushed off if it is inconvenient or awkward.

Now all we have to do is login to Twitter, Facebook or even LinkedIn and send them a message, providing they’re on one of those (which most of them are), and they will get it. For example no matter how many followers a person has on Twitter, every time they are mentioned or tweeted at they will receive a notification (assuming their accounts are being handled appropriately!). Not only that, but because the message is in the public domain there is more pressure on them to respond instead of batting it off as they might be tempted to do if it was private- and hey it gives someone a good (probably well paid) job in PR.

In fact here’s a little test – if your governing body has a live TV feed and you can spot a politician you know, tweet them and then watch to see if they get, and read, the tweet1. It might not be the most entertaining way to spend a few minutes but it is an excellent demonstration of how directly we are connected to our political representatives thanks to social media.

Provides a Convenient Platform for Political Discussion

According to this article during one of the Presidential debates in 2012, between Romney and Obama, over 10 million related tweets were made in the 90 minutes it went on. That’s a heck of a lot of people getting involved in a political debate! Now consider that the biggest age demographic, or 27% of Twitter’s users, are between 18-29 years old (that doesn’t even include the huge amounts of users under 18). That means there was a huge amount of social traction for a political event on a social network, whose users are mostly under the age of 30.

The older generations often claim that the youth of today are a politically apathetic generation. These figures, although not conclusive, seem to indicate otherwise – maybe they were just looking for a ‘fashionable’ platform to air their views?

Aids Political Liberation

In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set fire to himself in protest at the confiscation of his merchandise and mistreatment at the hands of a public official. What followed has become known as the Arab Spring; a wave of protests that spread throughout the Arab world demanding democracy, human rights and free elections.

To date the Arab Spring has resulted in regime changes in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, as well as large scale protests in countries like Kuwait and Algeria. Not to mention the on-going civil war in Syria.

What does that have to do with social media I hear you say? Well the movements in many of the countries involved were largely coordinated by people using social media. In Tunisia and Egypt 90% of people polled said they used Facebook to spread awareness and organize protests. To many onlookers this is a glimpse of the impact that social media can have on politics in how it enables ideas to snowball – in this case ideas and principles that the western world considers essential.

1If their phone is on silent then this experiment fails, of course. That being said, there are a lot of politicians to choose from so I’m sure at least one of them doesn’t have their phone on silent. Further, picking Obama or David Cameron won’t be a worthwhile exercise because they have whole teams of PR people to look after their social media accounts.

Josh worked for a British MP at the Houses of Parliament where he liaised with Government departments, NGOs, charities and businesses on a wide range of issues as well as covering the majority of casework. Now he is an SEO executive at Electric Dialogue, a London based digital marketing agency specialising in SEO, PPC and social media.

Image courtesy flickr user MCAD Library.