Social networking for politicians

John Osmond hears some advice about digitally connecting Wales

Social networking is not only alive and well in Wales but in many respects ahead of the rest of the UK, according to Bridgend-born journalist Marc Webber. Speaking at a seminar at the Pierhead in Cardiff Bay yesterday Webber, who has worked on some of Britain’s biggest websites – currently and before that The Sun online — shared the following statistics:

  • There are 723,320 adult Facebook users in Wales.
  • At the beginning of March Welsh phrases were among the top UK twitter trends of the week.
  • There are around 500 Tweets in Welsh every day.
  • There are more than 60 Welsh language apps on iphone.

“Don’t tell me that Wales isn’t a digitally connected country,” Webber observed. He reckoned that the most socially networked Welsh politicians from each of the parties were:

  • Plaid Cymru’s Nerys Evans for her constantly updated Twitter feed.
  • Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams for her highly active Facebook page.
  • Conservative MP Alun Cairns for his Twitter feed.
  • Labour’s Leighton Andrews for his blog.

Webber, who was speaking at a Democracy in our networked age event organised by the National Assembly Commission, said research conducted by Harvard University confirmed that political blogging brought dividends. “Blogs improve the quality of a politician’s public perception and in political terms influence the citizen’s voting decisions,” he quoted.

The power of the web as a campaigning tool has been demonstrated by the UK website 38 Degrees whose Director David Babbs also addressed the seminar. Launched in May 2009 and named after the tipping point when snow begins to move to create an avalanche, 38 Degrees was inspired by the impact of groups like in the United States, in Australia and around the world. These groups have used the same model, technologies and techniques to mobilise getting on for 9 million people. We aim to bring this approach to the UK. The site makes it easy for people to take action such as signing a petition, joining a protest or sending an email to an MP or the editor of a local paper.

Campaigns mobilised by 38 Degrees include:

  • New rules for lobbyists.
  • Opposition to media monopoly.
  • A fairer voting system.
  • Fighting against factory farming.
  • Standing up for the BBC.
  • A  cleaner energy bill.
  • An end to tax dodging.
  • Protection against homelessness.
  • Against government plans to sell off forests.

The latest campaign, voted on by 38 degree members is the campaign against Andrew Lansley’s health reforms in England. 38 Degrees has 650,000 members, of whom 30,000 are in Wales. David Babbs estimated that 60 per cent of the membership is connected to Facebook, and 30 per cent to twitter.

He also said that tw0-thirds of the membership had not been politically engaged before joining 38 Degrees.  “The main barrier to political engagement is not apathy but a widespread belief amongst people that nothing they can do can make a difference,” he said. “Organisations like 38 Degrees are demonstrating that they can make a difference.”

Babbs added that its relationship with politicians had been mixed. Some were supported but others like the Esher and Walton Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who attempted to get 38 Degrees to remove his e-mail address from its website, were hostile. Raab complained that he was being swamped by e-mails directed from the site and ended up debating the issue with Babbs on Radio 4’s Today programme – a contest in which he was made to appear an idiot.

Babbs said the new e-Democracy age presented at least four challenges for politicians:

  • Their administration could be overwhelmed when, like Dominic Raab, they found their inboxes overloaded.
  • They found it less easy to control the direction of debates.
  • They had to confront a new and generally unruly audience.
  • They had to deal with greater demands for accountability.

On the other hand e-Democracy was creating:

  • More participation.
  • Greater understanding of the democratic process.
  • Enhanced networking opportunities for politicians who now had another tool to mobilise campaigns and support from voters.

Babbs’ advice to politicians was:

  • Don’t try and bring the shutters down by, for example, following Dominic Raab.
  • Most of what you know off-line is relevant.
  • Its not (usually) about fancy technology.
  • Find out where your voters are on the web – and go there.
  • Relax and feel your way.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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