Social media campaigning in Westminster

Portcullis House
Portcullis House, Westminster. Image via Wikipedia.

Building an effective social media campaign was the theme of a Hansard Society and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) roundtable I attended in Portcullis House at Westminster last week. It was a two part event with the first half consisting of campaign ‘insiders’ and the second of campaign ‘observers’.

The first half was chaired by independent digital strategist, Dr Andy Williamson, who was previously the director of the Hansard Society’s Digital Democracy programme. The panel consisted of Mark Pack, LibDemVoice editor and head of digital at Engine’s MHP Communications; Cambridge Liberal Democrat MP Dr Julian Huppert who claims  to be the first MP on Twitter (having started in May 2007 when he was still a Cambridge don and before he was elected); Baroness Deech; and Elizabeth Linder, a politics and government specialist at Facebook.

Part two was chaired by Professor Rachel Gibson from the Institute of Social Change at the University of Manchester. The panel was Matthew Eltringham who set-up the BBC’s User Generated Content UGC Hub and is now editor of the BBC’s College of Journalism website’; Alberto Nardelli, co-founder of Tweetminster; and Professor Andrew Chadwick, professor of political science and co-director of the New Political Communications Unit in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.

It was a fascinating and thought provoking afternoon with some particularly useful contributions from the two academics who both presented results of studies and also hearing first hand from the BBC’s Matthew Eltringham.

As the presentations from the panel were long and interesting there was limited time for questions or contributions from the floor. One recurring theme was that of how representative social media conversations actually are of real life and society and the issue of digital exclusion which was a particular concern of the two politicians on the first panel.

Personally, I’m slightly more relaxed about it than they were. It’s a ludicrous notion that social media can be a replacement or alternative to traditional forms of political communication such as mass media, leaflets and newsletters,  public meetings and events, and telephone and doorstep contact. Any politician or professional communicator who ignored traditional channels would be guilty of gross negligence. Equally, the internet and social web is now so important and all pervasive that they would be equally negligent to ignore it.

Just as there are many people who will be excluded if you just rely on the internet and social media, there are also large numbers of people who will be excluded if you rely on traditional channels and ignore social media.

There were several references to the ‘echo chamber’ and the Westminster village so that people engaging in conversations online aren’t reflective of ordinary people. However, that’s not so different to the ‘usual suspects’ who attend community meetings and respond to traditional consultation. Any local councillor or MP will be able to tell you that it’s frequently the same faces that turn up at public meetings. The most vocal people by traditional channels aren’t representative, it’s no different online.

One of many good quotes was Matthew Eltringham telling of the surprise of a BBC colleague when he found out that ‘most people spend more time on social media sites than they do traditional news sites – even ours!’

The second area that I would have liked to have been able to develop is around the issue of education, rights and responsibility. One reason for exclusion is a lack of understanding and expertise in new social media channels. Even frequent users of social web sites don’t always have a good understanding of how to use them safely and effectively. We’ve been socially conditioned for generations how to have a conversation in person, but we’re still learning the etiquette and norms of what is good behaviour online.

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