Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Social media and the soapbox

Gosh, there’s nothing like a few well placed words for kicking off a party political crisis. Or, rather, there’s nothing like a slightly weird video that presents the Prime Minister of this country looking like a strange gurning alien for kicking off a party political crisis.

Earlier this week, Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote in the Observer:

“YouTube if you want to. But it’s no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre.”

It’s pretty obvious what her target was here: the YouTube video where Gordon Brown announced plans to reform MPs expenses without telling Parliament first. It also contained a few somewhat frightening impromptu smiles that didn’t help his image one jot.

Sadly, this kerfuffle has somewhat shown British politics in a somewhat unfortunate light again when it comes to social media. You’d think when you’ve got Barack Obama and his supporters embracing the web, that politicians in the UK from all parties could learn from this.

But, no. We’re still on either dismissing tools like YouTube out of hand or, worse still, condemning any attempt to engage online as a waste of taxpayers money. 

Take this rather ignorant post from Conservative MP Nadine Dorries on her attitude to Twitter.

In some respects it’s no different from what you’d hear from others who don’t get or don’t want to get Twitter. But to hear it from an elected representative is somewhat disappointing.

It essentially implies that she’s quite simply not going to bother engaging in a growing platform that provides an excellent way to directly connect with voters. As Chris at Clicking and Screaming says:

“I see little difference between the banal comments of the Twittersphere about ‘In the Loop’ and the banal opinions of a Member of Parliament on anything outside her remit. If it’s interesting to you, follow it. If not, don’t. But don’t lash out at those who do.

The compulsive need of those not involved to discuss it at length shows a fear of the unknown which, for a politician (and I generally have more respect for politicians than most do), is short-sighted.”

Let’s come back to Blears’ comments that You Tube is no substitute for door-to-door canvassing or taking the soapbox on tour. Again, it’s dismissing a wide-reaching social media tool used by a lot of the voting and non-voting public. It sounds a lot like one of those people back in the day who thought email would never catch on.

Local electioneering still has its place but YouTube has the potential to reach millions – many more than the town centre soapbox [1].

A few MPs even have their own YouTube channel, including Blears’ colleague Sadiq Khan [2]. But even then, this reveals a whole new set of problems. The most popular video on Khan’s channel has 227 views. The rest average somewhere between seven and about 150. Still, it’s a start.

The problem, to me, is one that’s all too common in any business or organisation or industry. You have some people who get social media and want to engage. You have some that know that they should probably be on these sites in some way, shape or form but aren’t sure how, and you have those who just don’t want to know.

Politicians, largely, are in the second and third groups. Brown’s office is probably in the second – they’re making the right moves but aren’t really utilising it properly.

So, for Brown’s YouTube videos, it has a feeling of somebody suggesting it as a good idea but with no real strategy behind it or a proper feeling for how YouTube works.

It feels somewhat like The Thick Of It special where the opposition MP’s advisor starts a blog, while the politician himself doesn’t really care.

In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t take a lot of work to join together all the aspects. There’s no reason why, say, Brown couldn’t have announced the expenses measure to the chamber and then had a YouTube video posted immediately after the announcement (sans gurning, you’d hope) and then followed it up with, ooh, a blog post and the like.

Then, on the other side, perhaps Labour (or perhaps an apolitical body) could pull together all the politician YouTube videos, and Twitter accounts, in one place so it’s easy for constituents to find and engage with their MP (which is, after all, one of the main reasons why they were elected, right?).

And there’s no harm in giving the Twitter feed or YouTube channels a plug. I only stumbled across Sadiq Khan’s feed when I was looking for something else – in 18 months living in Tooting, I’d never had information offline that he had a web presence and it wasn’t top of my agenda to look. Many other voters probably have similar mindsets.

As The Register points out, moderating comments isn’t that difficult (and it doesn’t seem as if Downing Street had even thought of it) and there’s so much untapped potential for politicians in this country to get involved in social media, engage and perhaps win back some of the trust that they seem so keen to squander on a regular basis.

But instead Labour (and, via Dorries, the Conservatives as well) have managed to get social media, their strategy and response so spectacularly wrong. Which leads to another spat. Which turns voters off even further.

Add to this the smeargate emails, and the media’s obsession that Iain Dale, Gudio Fawkes and the unlamented Derek Draper, are the only web-politics that matter, well, it just doesn’t want to make you get involved online.

In the US, Obama used social media and the web to bring about a positive movement that engaged the average voter in politics. In the UK, all we can do is sling political mud at each other online. How very depressing.

[1] It’s worth saying that the soapbox offers politicians a direct way to engage and spend time talking to constituents, but there’s no guarantee that the constituents want to engage. With social media – You Tube, Facebook, Twitter et al – you can measure the level of success much more effectively AND engage in conversation.

[2] The only reason I’ve chosen Sadiq Khan is he used to be my local MP so I’m slightly more familiar with his online presence (he has a Twitter feed as well) rather than any particular like of dislike of the politician.

jfffffffI see little difference between the banal comments of the Twittersphere about ‘In the Loop’ and the banal opinions of a Member of Parliament on anything outside her remit. If it’s interesting to you, follow it. If not, don’t. But don’t lash out at those who do.
The compulsive need of those not involved to discuss it at length shows a fear of the unknown which, for a politician (and I generally have more respect for politicians than most do), is short-sighted.

Who wags who?

Martin Moore’s discussion around the death of Ian Tomlinson and the subsequent investigation and unearthing of footage by the Guardian raises some interesting points about the place ‘old media (for want of a better phrase) have today:

“Would the ‘truth’ surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death have come to light had it not been sought out by journalists, and then published as the lead story in the Guardian? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.”

Then there’s the Damian McBride email scandal that may have broken in the blogosphere but still needed the traditional media to completely take it into the scandal it has now become. Would McBride have resigned if the accusations had just appeared on Guido Fawkes’ blog and nowhere else [1]?

But, by the same token, these stories wouldn’t have become as big had it not been for the work of social media, with videos of Tomlinson and alleged police brutality at the G20 protests circulating around the internet. And in the midst of this, the Guardian showed how a mainstream media’s website spread this using social media tactics.

Then, on a lighter news story, Pete Cashmore muses at Mashable on Ashton Kutcher’s passing of the 1 million Twitter followers mark:

“And yet this assumes that social media needs mainstream media to justify its existence: that without its blessing social media is not confirmed. But mainstream media is increasingly becoming an echo of social media, allowing YouTube’s masses to define what matters (Susan Boyle, the Domino’s Pizza scandal) and mirroring that public sentiment.

For now, Twitter needs mainstream media more than mainstream media needs Twitter. But Ashton has an audience of 1 million at his fingertips: how much longer will the talent need its mainstream middleman?”

Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail? Or just a case of having a double-headed, double-tailed canine?

Chris Applegate makes an interesting comparion between the coverage of Hillsborough twenty years ago and the coverage of the G20.

Back in the 1980s, it was much easier for the police (with a little help from The Sun) to get out their version, deflecting blame and smearing the innocent. Today, the police’s account of the G20 was quickly contradicted by the wealth of material available. One wonders if the families of the 96 would still be campaigning for justice if Hillsborough had happened today.

At the moment, both social media and traditional media are probably wagging each other. The footage of Ian Tomlinson would probably have gained traction without the Guardian, but the newspaper’s work meant it was disseminated much quicker. McBride’s emails may well have just stuck to the Westminster gossip blogs  if the papers hadn’t run with it [2].

Certainly with significant news stories that originate in niche communities, then it probably does require a helping hand from the traditional press to take it that step further. But the lines are getting increasingly narrow between the two.

If you have an interest in an area, mainstream or niche, you’ll probably hear the news before it makes it to the mainstream media, but it’s also never been easier for journalists to keep tabs on what’s getting the internet buzzing – and if that’s beyond the usual geek or early adopter buzz, there’s a good chance it’s a story that more people will be interested in.

And then you’ve got somebody like Susan Boyle, who was on a primetime show like Britain’s Got Talent and got the traditional media and the social media talking, and social media helped turn Susan Boyle into a global superstar, which, in turn, became a story for traditional media.

My brain hurts.

Both sides still need each other still, but it remains to be seen for how much longer. Journalists are still gatekeepers, sorting the wheat from the chaff in the internet world, albeit with no small amount of help from places like Twitter. And when they do manage to come together, like the Guardian’s excellent work with the Ian Tomlinson story, then it can really take off.

And one final note that’s probably significant in some small way. When news broke that Tomlinson didn’t die of a heart attack, as was originally though, thenews was all over Twitter. But the most retweeted user on this was Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the Channel 4 News anchor.

Like I say, both sides still need each other.

[1] Ok, this is being very simplistic. No blog is an island and that’s one of the joys of the web. If people like what’s blogged or Tweeted, it soon finds its way onto other blogs.

[2] It’s worth remembering that while the likes of Gudio and Iain Dale are seen as influential within Westminster, once you leave this behind, recognition of their names probably diminishes. You can be interested in politics without having heard of either, especially if you don’t spend a great deal of time reading blogs. There is a world beyond the blogs.

On being dirty, southern and a twit

The best kind of nights, I’ve always found, are the ones where you end up in a completely unexpected place. Last night, for me, that unexpected place was a fascinating in-depth discussion of Belgian politics and media, and contrasting it with the UK.

This isn’t normally what I spend my nights down the pub doing, but then it’s also a neat illustration of why I enjoy going to the assorted social media meetups. Or in this case, Tweetup.

Back in December, Lolly and I decided we’d quite like a Twitter meetup that was easy to get home from (The Shoreditch Twit is ace, but for those of us south of the river, it’s a bit of a trek back) and the Dirty South Twit was born.

The first one was a nice chilled evening drinking cocktails in Clapham with a bunch of people who’d never really met before, but were all on Twitter. Then we both got a bit busy, remembered we’d do another one and organised the DST2 at the Roxy Bar and Screen in London Bridge.

It also happened to clash with St Patrick’s Day (completely unintentional on our part) and Guinness were kind enough to help the craic with assorted hats, inflatable pints, T-shirts and other goodies. Oh, and free booze. I’ve now got a few cans sitting in my kitchen needing care and attention. They really were too good to us (well, it was the 250th anniversary of signing their brewery lease in Dublin. Any excuse for a party is good enough by me). You can see photos here.

But one of the joys of these events is, as well as catching up with a few familiar faces, you get a chance to speak to people you’d never normally meet, such as PBizzle, Rufus Evison and Julie Bodart and Pascal. Somehow with the latter two, I got onto the topic of Belgian politics and media (not entirely randomly, given that she’s Belgian).

There’s some fascinating differences between the UK and Belgium. It certainly doesn’t sound as if blogging is as big over there as it is amongst the media in this country. The regional press also seems to thrive, mainly because there isn’t one main national paper. Instead the big papers are split between the Flemish and Walloon regions, depending on their point of view. I’d imagine it’d be a similar thing here if Scotland were larger and really agitating for a split from England.

I’ve taken a mild interest in Belgian politics since they went for around nine months without a proper government in 2007 / 08 and found the political system, basket case though it was (probably outdoing Italy in places), fascinating.

Certainly from Julie and Pascal’s point of view, our government seems a lot more stable. Yes, I probably replied, but it also makes it quite dull. And harder to kick the bastards out, I didn’t add. Certainly I’d appreciate something to re-engage me with the political process and makes it seem exciting and interesting again.

Ok, it may not be entirely fun when you’re living in a country that can barely form a government let alone rule effectively. But at least it makes things interesting. Hell, I’m very jealous of America where, thanks to Obama (and, dare I say it, probably helped by the fact Bush was the previous incumbent) politics has become interesting, cool and sexy again. Go on, try and apply any of those three adjectives to our political system, I dare you. You’ll fail miserably.

I’ve gone a bit tangential here. But that’s kind of like the conversation last night. I met some fascinating people at the Dirty South Twit, had some very interesting conversations (I won’t recount the whole Belgian politics and media chat, partly because I can’t quite remember it all) and had plenty of Guinness. And that’s why I love Twitter meetups.

A slightly more coherent, less tangential write-up, with no mention of Belgian politics, is on the Dirty South Twit blog.

The weirdest thing I’ve read all week

Tim Worstall branded an online extremist and a threat to democratic debate after an argument about economics with Richard Murphy (that I won’t even begin to pretend to understand) gets a bit heated, and one person on Tim’s blog calls Richard some rather rude names.

Gawd alone knows there’s enough political bloggers who could be accused of being a bit suspect with the idea of a democratic debate and particularly nasty when it comes to (somewhat pointless) online spats, but Tim would probably be bottom of that list.

In the earlier days of blogging Tim was one of those people who did as much as anybody to try and bring the community together, largely through the Britblog Roundup, but also via various other initiatives. A lot of the stuff was a bit ahead of its time and would probably fall under the social media banner now – and he’s not even a PR, marketing or tech guy.

He’s also one of the very few (reasonably) high-profile bloggers I can think of who has earned himself regular writing gigs for most of the mainstream press at one point or another, and has kept the gigs going for a number of years. He’s also very quick to pounce on any kind of assault on civil liberties.

His politics may not be anywhere in line with my own but there’s no doubt the internet – and blogging in particular – would be a slightly poorer place if it weren’t for Tim.

The most bizarre bit of all is Richard stating that Comment Is Free (which both of them write for) is the best place to fight a war against online extremism. The abuse on CiF may be moderated, but it’s often far more vicious than anything Tim’s regulars post in his comments.

Fine, by all means try and sort out flaming (and other people have tried and failed) but at least start in the right area.

Take Jane

Normally politics makes me depressed and / or angry. And ID cards moreso than most other political gubbins.

But this viral that No2ID have produced is powerful, frightening and so easily close to being a reality. It makes its point well without resorting to going over the top, and neatly counters the “if you’ve done nothing wrong then you’ve nothing to fear” argument.

ID cards scare me, especially given the government’s record in data retention and civil liberties. And the public discourse around them has been rubbish, frankly. Hopefully one day MPs will realise that Minority Report and 1984 were meant to be fictional visions of a dystopian future, not a training manual.

I don’t hold out much hope.

*scurries back to t’interweb to talk more about blogging and Twitter and journalism*

This leaking story: perspective

Anybody else ever get a bit irked over the incessant use of hyperbolic language in public life? Like the arrest of Damien Green being described as Stalinist by assorted politicians? If this was genuinely Stalinist, he’d have probably been sent to Siberia, or shot. And then airbrushed out of history. By this time next week, we’d have all been positively encouraged to have forgotten he ever existed.

One day we’ll probably have to invent a set of completely new hyperbole to replace the ones that have been killed off by repeated clubbing with mixed metaphors.

It’s not like there aren’t other perfectly decent synonyms out there… .

Hazel, have you seen what’s happening over the pond?

Just as stopped clocks tell the correct time twice a day, so a politician occasionally makes a valid point without perhaps realising it, often because it’s difficult to distinguish from the rest of the words that tumble from the mouth and make little sense.

Hazel Blears’ speech on blogging and the internet is a prime example of a politician just simply not getting how social media works, but there’s also a couple of interesting points in there. We’ll come to those later, but chief amongst the proclamations is this gem:

“But mostly, political blogs are written by people with disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

“Until political blogging ‘adds value’ to our political culture, by allowing new voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.”

Christ alone knows exactly what she’s on about here when she talks about ‘adding value’. Blogs that are on message? That agree with the government line? That don’t insult politicians?

Maybe I’ve missed the point, but I always thought blogging allowed new voices (anybody can start a blog and get involved), new ideas, legitimate protest and challenge. I thought that was blogging in a nutshell, and one of the joys about it – that it encouraged new ideas, and developed those ideas through comment and discussion.

If you’re interested in politics, you can still start a blog even if you’ve got no connection to any political party or come from a particularly political background. Which, given that she’s also trying to get more people from outside the political class involved in politics (one thing I do agree with her on), you’d have thought would be an ideal place to start to look to re-engage a cynical public.

As for the cynicism and despair, then perhaps Blears best look closer to home. It’s difficult not to be cynical and despair of large swathes of what this government does. Not that either of the other two parties seem a great deal better, but the cynicism, despair and malaise set in long ago. Blogs mainly reflect that. If blogging had been around on a large scale back in 1997, it would have been no surprise if an outgoing Tory minister had uttered similar words.

She does, however, raise an interesting point when she says:

“Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?”

It’s not a completely daft hypothesis, even if the main blogs she mentions – Gudio, Iain Dale, etc – are hardly representative of all political blogs. They just happen to be the ones that, rightly or wrongly, get the most mentions in the mainstream media.

There’s also plenty of left-leaning blogs who are also fed up with this government, as Unity points out:

“It’s all very well flagging up that its only around half a dozen right-wing blogs, at most, who’ve been putting up the big traffic numbers and suggesting that this is ’simply anti-establishment’ and due to blogging having emerged only during the period in which Labour has been in office, but if that’s what she’s thinking then how does she account for the fact that most of the leading liberal and left-wing blogs are equally anti-establishment across a range of key issues from Iraq through to the government’s near-constant assaults on civil liberties and the systematic construction of the database state.

The problem that the current government has isn’t that there’s a general lack of popular or influential left-of-centre blogs, its that its policies on Iraq, etc. cost it the support of the vast majority of major players in the left-of-centre blogosphere, most of whom are at least semi-detached from the Labour Party if not operating fully within a broad ‘independent left’ category.”

It’s telling that when you compare the attitude of British politicians to the internet with their American counterparts, we come across as a lot less enlightened. Hell, a large part of Barack Obama’ success was built on the fact he managed to mobilise support online across the country:

“You know the executives that balk at implementing social media campaigns, well Barack Obama and John McCain showed that social media is no passing fad. Both candidates embraced blogs, social networks and Web video

***

The Obama campaign created a social network, MyBarackObama, on its official Web site. Members of that network at times criticized the candidate over his various positions.”

So while Obama, and the 72-year-old John McCain were busy getting their message out online, listening to their core support and, if necessary, modifying policies, this government is busy looking for more ways to regulate the internet and follow every part of our lives online.

Is it any wonder that this country is a bit disillusioned with politics, especially online, when it can look across at America and see how politicians are actually trying to engage with voters? As I’ve said, had this been 1997, there’s a good chance we could have been seeing a similar reaction to Tony Blair as we have to Barack Obama.

Tom Watson’s mentioned in the article. Although I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of his politics, I do wish his own party would look at what he’s doing online and even consult him occasionally on any policies towards the internet, as he’s one of the (sadly) very few MPs who seem to remotely get social media.


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com