How the Internet is Changing Politicians

I recently attended the Personal Democracy Forum Europe 09 in Barcelona and sat in a talk with one of our beloved Tom Watson to find what he and other speakers had to say about how the internet is changing politics.

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Speakers: Marietje Schaake, Tom Watson, Tim Hood and Bente Kalsnes

The speaker, Bente Kalsnes @benteka (a Norwegian freelance journalist based in Brussels andCommunication advisor Origo.no) opened the session by expressing her motivation for the topic. She quoted Jay Rosen who caught her  interest in the 1990's.

­We need to connect better with citizens, both within media and politics

In 1998, we didn't have the right tools to connect citizens and politicians. But now we do...

However today we face a different type of challenge to allow us to collaborate more efficiently and effectively. And these challenges do not just lie within technology but also culture, resistance and fear of losing control.

Tom Watson - UK's First blogging MP!

How is social media changing politicians?
Tom (@tom_watson) starts off his speech by confessing he himself is a "tribal campaigning politician making a very long journey into a political conversationalist". He also says that there were things that have changed him and the way he thinks about politics.

Serendipity, the potency and the beauty of the hypertext links is what has changed me. The way that knowledge is shared. The way that I assimilate information in a way that people converse with me and help me as a politician, try and dilute shared common problems has been totally transformed in the last few years as a result of the way I engage with social media.

Tom expressed his experience while being a Minister, not one day passed by without him getting some sort of insight from the people he conversed with using social media. It however often caused problems for the institution they call the civil service. But for Tom, in his efforts trying to provide political leadership, it gave him a great sense and greater depth into the the area of work he was working in.

Definition of Transparency by Tom Watson

Our goal is a new age of transparency. Transparency is a process for which we apply the disruptive tools of the internet onto politics because our goals should be building a collaborative democracy.  And Tom feels we have quite a long way to go before we get there. We've got data mining, screen-grabbing, more mashing, more mixing, more cutting and dicing to do before the political institutions that we want to change do change. Tom also adds that the way we will be able to judge success when we can have a more war-hole democracy. Where people in their lives may only have a single issue, or grip or campaign or reaction to a policy. And when that happens, political parties become more fluid and flexible enough to allow them their space to make their civic contribution.

Two ways political parties are going to change in this space

  1. Through inspired, strong and charismatic leadership.
  2. Through political catastrophe for that particular political party that wants to change.
  3. Or a combination of both...

Fact is....

Tom says it is hard for political institutions to react as quickly and as flexibly as we can in the social media space and that's the key challenge. And in a wider political sense, social media'ists have had it relatively easy in the past half a decade. All the work done in everybody's respective spheres of activity are making it harder for bigger institutions like old publishing institutions, governments, rigid political parties, public services and civil service.

Transparency hurts -Tom Watson

It hurts the institution because it creates the need for change that is quicker than the institutions are prepared to go.  More importantly Tom says, as a UK politician, it hurts the individual within the institution and they don't like it.

Tom Watson- We've got to reach an accommodation there. And we have not worked out the boundaries whereby we can do that. But I do think we are going to enter an era of information struggle where the successes that have already been made in the social media space creating a transparent political system in our own countries and continents mean that there are going to be some push backs from some of these rigid institutions.

The rise of the millennial's in the UK

We now face the problem of big publishing interests are hiring lobbyist's in Brussels and begin to flex their muscles in the political space and they're having some impact on the legislative process. But the fact is the millennial's are not going to buy the current copyright settlement.  Those under the age of 30, for which the internet is not a new technology, its just a way of life, will not buy into the status quo when it comes to the copyright settlement that the UK currently has now.  Changes in democracy that withdraw people's rights in social media and the net, like news aggregators are not going to succeed. However there will still be a difficult period of struggle and debate.

Breathing new life into political parties - facing the challenges

How do we face the issue of scarcity and abundance?

  1. Global warming- The politics of energy scarcity, where we have everybody thinking we have energy in abundance.
  2. The new information age- Where in information age, we have the politics of information abundance, where publishing interests are trying to enforce information scarcity.

Let's try to get a balance on that and social media might be the answer.

Marietje Schaake -Member of European Parliament (D66/ALDE Group)

Marietje (@MarietjeD66) started her speech of by saying that she truly believes that the internet is changing politicians in producing a whole different generation of politicians of which perhaps she is a product of. She ran a no-budget campaign and she was sure she wouldn't have been able to be elected if it was not because of the internet.

Opportunities to increase transparency, accountability and democratization through new media

Marietje is a member of D66,  a social liberal party and in the European parliament she is responsible for Foreign Affairs and for culture media education, Youth and Sports. She also sits on the delegation with the US. In the Dutch government, they are forbidden to use Twitter by the Chair of the Parliament and in the European often times even though it is not forbidden but its impossible because they do not have connectivity in half of the buildings that they use.

Marietje started to use the internet to run her campaign by  collecting a database of contact information which is been mention as a starting point in the Obama campaign as well. The outreach was to enable ideas to be generated and create legitimacy as a politician. She also use her natural networks online on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Hives (Dutch social network).

She used the internet to share what she was doing in the campaign, to announce where she would be and to invite people to be there as well if they were in the neighbourhood and to ask for input. She also used 10 tweets to briefly share the European programme that the D66 wrote for these elections and to invite people to add their own key points to the campaign. The traditional media then picked it up and it translated news into the traditional media. And this is how the internet and social media are increasingly working for politicians especially Twitter because it seems to be a meeting place for journalists, politicians and engaged citizens.

The challenges for new politicians in the social media space

There is an issue of sensitivity because people have said things that have backfired. Fresh politicians need to get used to what they should say in the public space and what they shouldn't say because anything you put online is forever.  So how do you manage that process while still being open and transparent, is a big challenge.

Its a permanent campaign but not for votes but for legitimacy. You can only deserve authority only through gaining legitimacy based on the trust of people and that means being accountable for the things you do. -Marietje Schaake

Using new media as a thermometer for society

Marietje also said that she uses new media as a thermometer of what stories touch people, what general trends are visible where people get upset about hypocrisy. Its a great way to be able to see a large number of people them without having to see them face-to-face.

It also can be used to see how much slack are people willing to cut politicians, how strict our people are to what we do. She also adds that she gets 10-20 concrete questions on Twitter everyday and about 300 emails a day at least.  Its about how you can keep this interaction going and answering all these questions that people do expect in this kind of information age to get answered and when they reach you, how can you reach people back in a personalized manner, is a big challenge.

Challenge: Diversity of platforms

Marietje also expresses her struggle dealing with all the platforms of communication she's currently been subjected to. She has her own Twitter and Facebook account, as explained earlier but she also has her political party website, which also has a Twitter and Facebook account, different departments in the political party does as well as the European political family of liberal democrats have a YouTube channel and  all the messages tends to be quite diffused. Marietje admits that this is something she is not entirely comfortable with yet and she hopes that it can be concentrated and personalized. One of the lesssons Marietje took from the campaign is it helps when you personally share your messages.

So what does it mean for politicians in the internet age?

Marietje made some interesting points on this that I feel is crucial for politicians to comprehend if they truly want to represent a democracy in the digital age.

Its a question about leadership and very curious to find the balance between true democratic representation, perhaps almost an absolute democracy in which everybody's opinion can technically be weighed into a decision vs populism and the hype that large amounts of people can also create and what that does to the minority voice.

And how politicians are suppose to be sure that we've heard all sides to a story and that politicians don't become too sensitive to a large crowd of people behind one idea which is then clear how to please but then how do you make sure you've heard the minority voices and how do people accept that you sometimes make a decision that is not supported by the majority because you've been trusted with that responsibility to make those decisions.

The hype character of media and messages

Marietje addresses the obvious but possibly often ignored fact that sometimes thoughts and political ideas require more than 140 characters and is there room for more sophisticated analysis or investigative journalism?

The challenge...

The filtering of the amount of information and the in-depth level of the information beyond sound bytes and black and white portrayal facts is something of a particular challenge for Europe at the moment.

Marietje's Action Plan

In the European parliament, she is trying to bring issues on the political agenda and the way the internet impacts politicians lives in a more horizontal network of interdisciplinary working on how new media and technology are changing our societies and democracies in something that is called an integral. Marietje hopes that this can be a way where we can think beyond political families and concrete topics. But also in a broader interdisciplinary manner about how new media and technology are changing politics and democracy.

Tim Hood - Yoosk

Examples of when citizens meet politicians and conduct an interview


Tim Hood who is the founder ofYoosk? started off his speech by showing a YouTube video similar to the one above. Yoosk? has been facilitating this for about 2 years now and Tim said that they have learnt a lot from about how the internet is changing politicians.
  • The question is"Is it changing their values and behaviours?" And most importantly,"Is it going to bring a whole new generation of new politicians with a new set of value and behaviors as a result of social media?"

What are politicians doing with social media?

They're using it for self-branding. But according to Tim, its interesting to see that in the UK, politicians who start blogging tend to become inactive after a while. Sometimes they make faux pas and have to give it up because one politician said they had one too many glasses of wine at night. Others find it hard to something inspiring and interesting to say everyday and that is very difficult.

Tim believes that this must change the way politicians start staffing themselves. It is no longer enough to rely upon family members or interns that may not have the skills to use social media. Therefore future politicians are seen to be team leaders to a group of highly professional people.

They also use it to mobilize support. For example via Twitter alerts and etc; influencing and networking. However Tim believes that most politicians use it to network with influential people rather than the public. The ratio of followers and follows are also quite interesting to see as politicians often have a significant amount followers as compared to those that they follow. So this basically shows how Twitter is being used as an alert service rather than an engagement tool with citizens.

  • Getting input into decision making
  • According to Tim, social media has helped politicians to understand grass roots opinion more now with social media as compared to before. Expectations among the public is also growing, they don't just want to consume media but they also want to create media and participate. And the interviews conducted by Yoosk! conducted by ordinary members of the public and they're not camera shy and they're very comfortable in front of the camera and sometimes they're even more comfortable than regular politicians!
  • The context is changing in media
  • Tim gave a good example of how the Birmingham Mail has changed from being a daily newspaper to a weekly newspaper. Local councillors have expressed disappointment in this change because they are used to communicating with constituents through this medium.
  • Digital inclusion
  • In the UK, there are 17 million people who are digitally excluded. A lot of the conversations that do take place between politicians and citizens on the net are usually with with early adopters. Tim says he believes that digital inclusion is important but a lot of people worry that dispowered or disenfranchised people are going to be left behind. But later expresses that social media actually provides the opportunity to be more involved as long as we don't expect them to be 'early adopters'. But it has to be combines with traditional mediums of print and TV as well.
  • The reputation of politicians
  • There is the worry of politicians reputations being somewhat challenged. Politicians need to show that they care and they care passionately. One way of doing that is to send out a message that they are willing to get face-to-face with the public on camera and regularly. And social media is by far the cheapest and most cost effective way of doing that.
  • The expectations of access
  • The expectations has been raised because of social media. They can see that in theory, that social media is really easy to get your message directly to politicians. However it is still difficult to get a response. But some people have said that if you can get right in front of a politician, face-to-face, you can actually get on their radar.
  • The growth of niche online communities
  • These large online communities such as Netmums, are becoming political forces in themselves. Netmums quite regularly have their users put questions to their politicians. A lot of politicians are still not aware of this potential of targeting specific communities in this way. So they have got to become more media savvy.

Lessons learnt: The key is in the words... social media

The 'Media' aspect...

Politicians need  to become aware that it is amedia activity. They need to learn the skills and they need to ensure their staff are equipped with those skills. So they need to make sure that when their being interviewed that the content is suitable for the web. They need to ensure that their message gets out there and that  means building good relationships with the owners of online communities in their area. There are not a lot of politicians who look at hyperlocal blogs that are in their area and really engaging with those people.

The 'Social' aspect...

There also seems to be a problem with the social aspect of it because politicians seem to not grasp the core of social activity isinteraction -its a two-way conversation. Its very true that it is high to sustain in high volumes so building the credibility of their staff is important. Every MP has a credible spokesperson for them online, is deemed very important. Engagement is all about meaningful conversations.  Politicians are increasingly showing that they are willing to change the way they see things.

Yoosk.com

Hope this was useful!

Liz xxx

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