Is the Power of Social Media in Politics a Good Thing? (Part II)

In the first part of this series on the influence of social media in politics, I took a look at the benefits brought by the age of social media to politics. However, everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows – the influence wielded by the social platforms can just as easily have a bad influence.

Aids the Spread of Extremism
An immediate concern for political commentators and often society in general, is the way extremists are utilizing social media for their own ends. It was difficult for Government to stop the spread of extremist ideology before the internet, once the internet took off their task was made even harder, and then social media came which made it nearly impossible.

For example the English Defence Force (EDF), a far right political party in the UK, were able to increase their membership from 50 in 2009 to over 200,000 by 2012. A feat they, and many onlookers, credit with their presence on social media widening their audience.
Some may argue that accounts advocating extremist views should be banned, but that is a fairly arbitrary process – after all where is the line drawn between strongly held beliefs and extreme ones? Not to mention that that kind of thinking is opposite to many of the principles democracies have prided themselves on for centuries.

The middle road between filtering extremists and allowing a forum for free speech is becoming harder to define. It’s a difficult problem but a solution needs to be found.

Can Overwhelm the Law
In this series I’ve already spoken about the positive effects of social media in the Arab Spring in helping to coordinate protests in the cause of freedom. Unfortunately, the ability of social media to overwhelm oppressive regimes can equally be used to overwhelm the law in stable countries.

The England Riots in 2011 were originally sparked by an incident involving the Police and the death of someone they suspected was carrying a weapon. However, very soon that motive was used as a cover for hundreds of people who went on a rampage through many English cities causing millions of pounds worth of destruction. They stole from shops, vandalized houses, cars and public property even assaulting the riot Police sent to stop the unrest.

How were these people, largely unknown to each other, organizing their movements so effectively? Social media, that’s how. In the aftermath Twitter was roundly criticized for allowing rioters to benefit from its user base in organizing riots. It is a demonstration of the near impossible task for democratic governments to reign in this kind of activity on social media once it gains momentum.

A case in point is the super-injunction imposed by a British court on a news story involving footballer Ryan Giggs. His name was first revealed by a John Hemming, a British MP, in the House of Commons where he was protected by Parliamentary Privilege. After that the courts were defied as Ryan Giggs’ name went viral on Twitter. The sheer volume of tweets meant that it was not realistic to charge everyone who had broken the injunction leaving the Government rather red faced. In the grand scheme of things this is a fairly trivial case but it is another example of how social media can even overpower the law in a stable, developed nation like the UK. Which most of the time can’t be a good thing.

Removes Politicians’ Credibility
The representatives we elect should not be worried about trying to gain cheap and quick personality points by pandering to the latest craze on a social network site or telling us what TV show they just watched. Instead they should be doing their best to restore the respectability of a crucial, yet currently unpopular, position in society.

It may seem picky, and some may say getting their personalities across via Twitter will bridge some of the divides between the elected and the elector. To most though, a politician’s job is not to worry about the next election or short term popularity but to do their best to ensure the country and their local area, does the best it can.

Therefore people understandably are concerned when politicians tweet or Facebook from their respective political chamber. When they should be listening on behalf of their electorate to what is going on so that they are able to make well informed decisions.

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.