News and Comment

Social media and local democracy: a reality check

Tuesday 4 November 2014

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OPM and Dialogue by Design went along to a seminar a couple of weeks ago at the University of Westminster on the implications of digital and social media for the relationship between councillors and citizens, hosted by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy. ‘Democracy first, digital tools second, but not necessarily never’ was the main conclusion of the discussion. Although there is still enthusiasm about the potential for social media to influence the way representatives work and widen political spaces, a degree of realism has emerged in the debate.

Steven Clift presented case studies of local councillors in Minneapolis where politicians have enthusiastically embraced Facebook – using personal profiles to engage their constituents, community activists and supporters. Through the example of a dispute over a public meeting, he demonstrated how tagging people and places meant that posts and responses on the issue quickly circulated on Facebook feeds – with a more effective reach than notoriously hard to promote pages.

In the UK, Twitter is undoubtedly more popular amongst politicians. Two UK councillors also gave their perspectives. Cllr Tim Cheetham from Barnsley is now entering his sixth month without a tweet. He became disillusioned due to a combination of relentless negativity that can be found online, and the realisation that his presence on social media wasn’t adding anything to his work as a councillor. Cllr Liz Green from Kingston upon Thames remains a convert, but was keen to stress that social media should never entirely replace the myriad of other ways that councillors communicate with residents.

What has caused this hesitancy and caution over the use of social media? Access remains a key problem – an estimated 13% of adults have never used the internet. Interrogating this subject further can lead to some surprising findings – ‘Tech City’ in Shoreditch sits alongside a local population where 25% of households may not have the internet. Local politicians can also find they are engaging with people on Twitter who do not actually reside within their ward, while also giving priority to constituents who are able to condense their issue into 140 characters over those who have chosen to write a letter requesting a face to face meeting.

Getting the personal right on social media can be a difficult balance. The Facebook profiles from the Minnesotan politicians were definitely not a space for cat videos, pictures of a late night out or family updates – and are still a highly mediated version of the personal politician. But how much do we really need to know about our political representatives? Trust in local politicians tends to be higher than in MPs, but being active on social media can lead to criticisms that councillors are not doing their jobs. On the other hand, sharing too little risks politicians being permanently marooned on a soulless soapbox. Twitter might not actually be having much impact in breaking down these boundaries.

It’s about services too, not just politics. Local public services and voluntary sector organisations use social media, and many councils have successful corporately run feeds. This is opening up new virtual spaces for civil society. It is undoubtedly useful to keep track of what is going on locally, debate local issues, facilitate discussions amongst residents in an immediate and highly visible way. But that reality check remains important. Rejuvenating local democracy is not going to happen just through more people, networks and organisations being on Twitter.  It’s about how those different nodes of power and influence operate and interact – both online and offline.

The seminar ended with a set of challenges: Are there better platforms to engage? What are the metrics of success in the context of social media and local political representation? What are the features of a local area that mean social media might work well, and how do we recognise those?

In short, as we reach for our smartphone, we should be aware that Twitter and Facebook are not necessarily the platforms to rejuvenate civic life that we might have hoped for.