Saturday, February 28, 2009

Twitter and Nudge

I had a thought when putting a few additions into a lecture last week. The lecture was all about media effects in this modern age of message overload and media fragmentation and started with the rather jokey 'what do we know... Nothing' argument. However a thought evolved. It is said that nudge works, that is the simple and often immediate message that gets people to act in a certain way at that instant - the idea is that it is habit forming but it does not need to be. To me nudge could be applied to all manner of things from point of sale goodies (mmm Cadbury's Cream Eggs are in season again) to the classic example of the fly that is painted not only on the urinals of Schiphol Airport but also those on the campus of the University of Antwerp I noted (they help poor blokes such as me to hit said 'pot' in the optimum place to avoid unnecessary mess - not an admission of requiring a painted on fly of course but some apparently do). So that is nudge, fine, but that was clearly not the original thought. No, I was curious about whether there were any applications for electioneering? Well the closest thing is if you can capture floating voters who are signed up to Twitter and get alerts to their Blackberry. So here is the idea, will parties in the future be trying to discover which of their followers are loyal or not (could one indicator be if they follow more than one party or MP for example), would they then try to target tweets at those voters in a competition to be the last one to tweet before said voters enter the ballot box. So the question could this be a way that Twitter could be used as a Nudge tool to attempt to influence voting behaviour? Alternatively am I having a Lemsip fuelled moment of complete madness?

Friday, February 27, 2009

One use for Facebook

Mention Facebook as a tool of political communication and you get very mixed reactions, and loads of issues emerge. The jury is certainly out on whether risks outweigh benefits, whether it represents reaching out or dumbing down or, perhaps most importantly, if it is about individuals communicating with individuals or individuals marketing themselves to potential voters. They are all accepted arguments for and critiques against! Here is an interesting example. With the European Parliamentary Elections on the horizon the Green Party are organising and one part of their mobilisation strategy is via Facebook. Their party group has been going for just short of two years, there is an active group that share links, event and campaigning ideas via the wall, it has 2,260 members and the admins include current MEP and party leader Caroline Lucas who is also an individual member. All good but nothing special one could argue.

But as the election nears what the party is looking for are activists, in fact messages from the group invite volunteers willing to do: "leafleting, mobilising members and potential supporters, writing letters to the local press, helping to create events for visiting Euro-candidates, watching for hustings opportunities…" The email calls it an Obama-style ground-level campaign and is aimed at the student activist seeking to add to their CV, but it also represents a way of targeting the people they need to. If they are prepared to join a 'Green Party' group and publicise their support they are likely to be at least interested in the idea of greater involvement and hence willing to be be encouraged to take part. So while it easy to condemn Facebook as mind-numbing and a thief of time it is enabling communication between the Green Party and a group of supportive individuals that may be hard to replicate if social networks did not exist. So, based on that argument, could an MP not also gain s similar support base within a constituency via Facebook that could be encouraged to be actively supportive at times of an election?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chances are your MP is not on Facebook - but should they be?

It is always good to see an academic article generating debate and Andy Williamson's report for the Hansard Society has done just that in certain quarters. Well it will if you spin it a certain way. Andy's report is based on research among MPs to discover how they use the Internet. The findings are not earth-shattering though very interesting to those into such things. The conclusions are equally highly sensible; he argues for MPs to have a clear policy and strategy for going online, one linking with offline communication strategy, that MPs should think about the multiplier effect when using social networking (that one reader may tell another 10 or so), and to think about engaging with the communities that are key to them. That broad brush was spun by Emily Bell to argue that most MPs do not want 'connectivity' and 'avoid using Facebook or even email' and suggests that MPs who do not 'get' the Internet are about to be kicked out of their seats.
The most interesting thing about Bell's article is the comments it has generated, a 100 to this point which can be separated into a couple of camps broadly: the sceptics that think 'connectivity' is a good thing for MPs but something they would never consider - Almosta argues "they are scared s***less of being confronted by real people". Then there are those who suggest Facebook is the wrong place for politicians or indeed anything serious citing research to suggest it creates an audience of attention deficient and selfish individuals. Some of the inaccuracies are wonderful, such as the delightful comment by TristramShandy that "Lynn Featherstone, is great at responding promptly and constructively to emails - precisely because she's not the kind of bandwagon-hopping moron who thinks the illusion of accessibility is more important than the reality", sorry Tristram, Lynne is one of my friends on Facebook and quite and active user! But at the heart of the debate is the age old question of what is appropriate for political communication, is it the latest public fad or the old tried and tested methods? Facebook is not elitist, it may well be changing the way children interact, but if it was not the current sites it would be others. Should MPs embrace where the people are and will not doing so make them appear aloof and out of touch? Williamson's report shows some interesting data and raises interesting questions particularly about the future - email was once a minority communication tool among MPs, as were websites; now they are common and expected of all including parliamentary candidates. Will the future demand MPs have a version of Facebook or Twitter or something we have not yet even thought of, or should they resist and leave such innovations to the 20% or so early adopters? Big questions!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is the web being taken seriously?

The hype, not just from the media but from all parties, is that the web is the new battleground. This is not just a post-Obama phenomenon, from Labour's Big Conversation to WebCameron to the invasion of Facebook by MPs and parties the Internet is being used more and more to promote parties.

I have had the fascinating (no sarcasm I promise) task of identifying candidates for the European Parliamentary election and whether they have a website. Here is something interesting, only the top six parties (Labour, Conservatives, LibDems, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru) name their candidates so far. But of those it is interesting how many, and indeed how few, have some form of web presence. For some it is a blog, for others a personalised website, and the minimum is a page embedded within the party website which offers some basic biographical details and an email or phone number. The Conservatives name 70 candidates, all of whom have some form of presence. Plaid Cymru similar have 100% presence, though there are only four in total anyway and the Scottish Nationalist party have four out of five. Next are the Greens, they are fielding 64 candidates of whom 47 are on the web, while of the 70 Liberal Democrat candidates 48 are immortalised online. But the losers in terms of a web presence are Labour. They field only 67 candidates and only 30, less than half, can be found to have a web presence of any sort at all. In fact the majority are identified only by a name on the party website with no details whatsoever. Now it may be the case that there is a lot of detail available somewhere for them all, and it is still early days, but if we take this as indicative of strategy, or the seriousness with which the party are taking the Internet, it is no surprise that the party is claimed to be lagging behind. Does it matter, well if there is anyone out there who is interested in the candidates and not only the party perhaps; or perhaps there is a broader symbolism, that it is an indication of the determination of some parties to be 'everywhere' (to steal the Obama line) and to take the election seriously.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Belgian Lessons

While in Belgium, teaching at University Antwerpen, I set the students a seminar task. The task was to assess their favourite party's, MP's or candidate's website for interactivity. The measure was one I have been using (in collaboration with others) which looks at levels of user control as well as the extent of participation (one-way, from sender; two-way, a feedback loop, or three-way public participation). The obvious finding was that, like many British parties, the majority of communication is one way and about informing not interacting. But one thing impressed me and is beyond what most parties do, though not all MPs. The blog of the SP.A (roughly translated as the Social Progressive Alternative party) not only gains a fair amount of comments on posts (into the 60s) but one of the contributors is party leader Caroline Gennez responds to comments. This is somethign rare and even rarer in an uncontrolled environment such as a blog. Gordon Brown has answered selected video questions on YouTube, David Cameron did allow visitors to comment on WebCameron; but it is either selected by the party or, as with WebCameron, the facility is abandoned quickly. Perhaps it is the comparative youth of Gennez (at 32) that makes her more open to the workings of the web, perhaps it is the fact they are an alternative party and so have less to lose, but it remains a rare event and in the UK something only the really marginal parties do in a limited way; so hats of the Gennez and the SP.a and perhaps a lesson for many parties of how to build relationships!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Insights into the political mindset!

There has been a lot made of the 'tirade' or 'F-word rant' launched against Keith Vaz by Boris Johnson after he was criticised in a BBC interview and thought he would be recalled to give more evidence. The issue at hand was whether Boris Johnson had divulged information to David Cameron about Damian Green's arrest that Cameron would not have been party to but the Mayor of London would (following all that, if not its all in the media). The conversation demonstrates a series of fears held by Boris Johnson, that anything he does could become a huge party political issue and, as a corrollary of that, will damage the standing of the Conservatives. Thus there are these wonderful comments about Johnson's decision to turn up to committee and what might be suggested if did not. While a private conversation now it is public it is very revealing about how Johnson and perhaps the Conservative party as a whole worry about any negative press as they stick the boot into Brown: such is the nature of a competitive democracy!

In terms of perceptions Boris does not come across well, the transcript shows signs of petulance while Vaz remains very calm and indeed fair given the circumstnaces; whether it will cause any real ripples for hte party or Johnson is unlikely but it is a fascinating exchange.

Full text of the conversation is below:

BJ: Have seen the broadcast regarding the letter I sent to you following Tuesday's evidence session. I'm unbelievably disappointed in the way my evidence is being treated.
I said to you that I could not remember the exact details at the time. Clarified the facts as soon as I was made aware/reminded of what happened. So fucking angry that you have gone on TV saying that I will be recalled to HASC (the Committee) to give further.
KV: I don't know what broadcast you have seen.
BJ: On the BBC. You are using the HASC for party political purposes. I used to think that you were a straight guy. A man that you could do business with. This is fucking ridiculous.
KV: I never said that I would recall you in the Committee.
BJ: You have gone on television and connived to try and give the impression that I fucking tipped off David Cameron. You are trying to make me look like a fucking fool. I cannot believe that you have allowed the HASC to become a part of this. This is such fucking bullshit.
KV: You turned up to the evidence session on Tuesday with no diary or notes.
BJ: I fucking warned you beforehand that I would not be very good on details.
KV: I have circulated your letter to every member of the Committee.
The only thing missing from the letter is the exact time of the call. Why didn't you just include the time of the call?
BJ: You have abused the Committee and I will not let this rest.
KV: This is a matter for all members of the Committee, I didn't want to call you to give evidence, other members did, including Conservative members, I want to conclude the inquiry next Tuesday. I do not want to recall you, I want this inquiry to be concluded next Tuesday.
BJ: I have been asked endlessly about phone conversation with Paul Stephenson but calls with Cameron were completely fucking irrelevant. Why did you have to go to the BBC? I was under the impression that you would come back to me first.
KV: You went to the Evening Standard on Tuesday immediately after the evidence session and said that you spoke to David Cameron at 1.10pm. I said when we walked out of the room that we should go and deal with the press, but you said no because they were only sketch writers.

BJ: You have behaved in an unbelievably naked partisan way. Labour Party? Fucking smear tactics from the Labour Party.
KV: How can you even say that when in PMQs today David Cameron used something that I said against the Labour Government. No one will believe you that I am being partisan. You have written to me using the word "lunchtime" as an explanation. Give us a time and that is the end of it. I have no intention of re-calling you. You came in unprepared and treated the Committee as a joke, you were extremely discourteous and the Committee members were not impressed. You are not the subject of the inquiry, this has to go before the Committee, all they will ask for is the time. We just need the time. This is not in my hands, this is in the hands of the whole Committee. BJ: It was about 1.15pm
KV: Well, why didn't you just say that in the letter? Where were you anyway? What was it about Ladbroke Grove station?
BJ: I was at a congestion charge event at about lunchtime, travelling back.
KV: You came into the evidence session very unprepared and treated the Committee very rudely. Showed no respect to the Committee.
BJ: Did not treat the Committee rudely.
KV: You stormed out before the end!
BJ: I stayed for at least 30 minutes when I was told I would only be needed for 20 minutes. I waited for 15 minutes. I answered all of the questions and just because I cannot remember one thing. This is shit.
KV: I gave you the option of not coming due to being busy sorting out London. You took this to mean a party political strategy when it wasn't.
BJ: Well, I didn't want it to be a fucking smear on Transport for London.
KV: The letter sent is defective. We only need the time of the call and this should have been said in the letter.
BJ: Will an approximate time do? Between 1pm and 1.30pm or 1.15pm and 1.30pm.
KV: Yes, that will be fine. It is Members of the Committee who want you to be recalled, including Conservative members. They also want to call David Cameron to give evidence. I do not want to do that. I want the matter to be closed. The matter will be closed if we have the time.
I want to find out about Damian Green. I'm one of few who wanted this investigation and you weren't taking it seriously. You have only become a subject because he gave such bad evidence.
I do not want to recall you, I want to finish on Tuesday. But you should have treated the session with more respect.
BJ: You have made a mountain out of a molehill.
KV: I gave you the way out. You didn't even have to turn up on Tuesday; it could have been delayed until next week.
BJ: I didn't want to do that as I thought a big thing would be made about the London transport system not working.
KV: Did you tell Cameron?
BJ: The key point that is not getting across - I didn't give any fucking information to Cameron.
KV: So you didn't tell him.
BJ: Nothing he didn't already know

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Perhaps not e-representation

A lot has been said about the press release and the fact that Labour announced that a "guide will be distributed to MPs this week on how best to use these social media websites to engage with constituents". So the thinking is that firstly tools like Twitter are able to nurture social engagement - well they can be but it depends how they are used but something like Twitter is not if it is used to simply communicate tiny url links to speeches. Secondly, there is an assumption that, perhaps because it worked for Obama, constituents want to listen to 'Tweets' from MPs. It works for some - Tom Harris for example - but Twittering must have a purpose (yes I twitter and I'm not sure why) so insisting MPs tweet may not be the good idea. The danger seems this notion that it is about engaging with constituents, actually though it is really about communicating. But the key point is that a good MP will already know both how to communicate to and also engage with constituents; if MPs need a guide to do so it is rather worrying. Equally if there is a theory that this can be best done via social networks then that is a flawed premise. Some MPs blog frequently and have a constituency of readers (this may or may not correspond with the area they represent), but they have created a buzz over a period and gained loyalty. The danger of this strategy, at this point, is it will seem like preparation for an election; but it is doubtful that it will create the buzz that is required to build relationships between the twittering MPs and their constituents.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Tom Brake, LibDem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, uses Facebook. Not especially as an ordinary member, in terms of ordinary (mundane) status reports or poking or that sort of thing, but as an MP. It is a model of representation, what myself and Nigel Jackson describe as e-representation, where the MP uses the Internet to enhance and make easier their role as a constituency MP. This is a perfect example: Tom updates his Facebook friends on the weather reports and is thanked by fivefor doing so. It is part of the job of the modern day MP, but it also builds up a link between him and constituents, perhaps earns a degree of loyalty but, most importantly, enforces the idea of the MP as a servant of the community. It is an emergent model that has few adherents so far, however while enhancing the service role it is also in some way a conversation starter and Tom does quite a few of these (as do many LibDem Facebook users and a very small minority of other party's MPs). The one aspect that seems to be most lacking is a reply, currently most conversations start with a note from an MP and then receive responses but there is no public sense of the MP commenting back in line with the note. Perhaps this would enhance the representative nature of the relationship to a greater extent and take e-representation to a different level.

Playing in the snow with Carol Vorderman

I quite like this idea, I am sure this is a case of how can we rescue the launch of a policy initiative when snowed in but I still quite like it. In fact it probably works better than the original.

What we should have seen is David Cameron, Michael Gove and Carol Vorderman launching an initiative to inspire children to be better at mathematics. The venue would have been Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College in Lewisham (a heavily over-subscribed academy with a strong reputation whose alumni include newsreader Fiona Bruce, musicians and lyricists Joe Strummer and Steve Harley and the Wright-Phillips - not exactly a school where the children are likely to fail at maths perhaps). But instead, due to snow the school was closed and so Cameron and Vorderman went to throw snowballs at one another while at the same time delivering the message that schools needed to do better. But, and for a party this is important, what is most interesting. The tour of the school, with celebrity in tow or not, or the more playful snowball fight that many may be interested in watching that culminates in a bit of party branding and a political message. In an age when people may be bored with party politics and fail to engage with messages of substance, this may have been a far better way to reach the widest audience. It has the branding, the celebrity endorsement and a pull factor; Hatchams College may have been a bit dry in comparison.