On Thurdsay 23 October Involve organised a new event on digital media and democracy, following the excellent debate we had back in the summer. Once again the event was born from the ongoing collaboration between Involve and Professor Graham Smith, from the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. This time the conversation had a more local scope and we had a number of different viewpoints in the same room: local level practitioners, academics and the key political protagonists of local democracy, the councillors.
The whole idea of this event started with Steve Clift, executive director of E-democracy.org, approaching Involve with a proposal for a debate on how highly networked councillors in the US, or what he calls Facebook native councillors, build their own engagement channel with local communities. I got really interested in the idea as for a while now I’ve been studying changes to local democracy and to the role of councillors, as they face new pressures from more assertive citizens, in a context of decreasing resources. Councillors are encouraged to update their Twitter streams and Facebook pages to signal openness and accountability and build support. But does it really work? We invited two UK councillors to share their very different experience with social networks: Tim Cheetham from Barnsley Council and Liz Green from Kingston-Upon-Thames. And we asked journalist Dan Jellinek, founder of Headstar and author of “People Power”, to help us highlight at the end the key challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
The highly interactive discussion format helped us reflect together on some big questions: what are the implications of greater use of digital and social media for the relationship between councillors and citizens? Does it disrupt established practices and institutions? Will new technologies widen the political space? Or is it all hype? With a seemingly high-tech crowd (all geared up with tablets and smartphones and tirelessly tweeting away on the event hashtag #wiredcllr) you might have expected greater enthusiasm for social media. But a quick skim through the storify of the event reveals a more ambiguous picture.
First dilemma: Twitter v. Facebook. Which one, if any, works best to engage communities? Steve Clift described the experience of e-democracy in Minnesota, one of the most wired, civic states in the US and explained how highly networked councillors are at the centre of wired communities. These new engagement channels are helping different demographics, younger and from ethnic minorities, to get elected. They use Facebook, because that’s where people engage more in discussion. “Twitter is a soapbox”, said Steve, more about being a visible political player. However, there are no certainties here. A councillor in the audience argued that his constituency was “a very Twitter sort of place” and on Facebook he couldn’t get much engagement at all.
Dividing communities into Twitter or Facebook places is an entertaining thought. Certainly, the architecture of the two most popular social networks seem to shape the type of conversation: Facebook groups are more about “doing” and mobilising communities around specific issues; Facebook pages act more like a broadcasting channel. Facebook profiles seem to have the greatest reach but the implications in terms of the blurring between personal and political are profound.
Irrespective of whether it is Twitter or Facebook, the problem with social networks is that they encourage the so-called confirmation bias. As we tend to connect with and follow people we perceive have similar views to our own we create filter bubbles that risk giving us a misleading perception of reality and reinforce pre-held convictions. So during election campaigns, based on the support and the tone of the debate on their Twitter or Facebook accounts, you’d think every party is the winning one. Twitter and Facebook’s “affordances” (or the opportunities and the challenges they present) might not quite suit political engagement then. Dan Jellinek just posted an interesting critique, based on discussions at the event, of how Facebook and Twitter as commercial enterprises can “control” these conversations. Of course, there are many more appropriate alternative platforms, but how do we engage people away from Twitter and Facebook, where they have quite comfortably settled?
Tim Cheetham, once social media enthusiast now “six months dry”, said that being on Twitter or not made no difference to his electoral result: out of 5000 plus Twitter followers, only two dozens lived in his ward. Tim complained that his Facebook page ended up as a noticeboard, with little casework coming through social media, because people could go straight through to the council, and that actually made him feel “redundant”. Which brings me to the second dilemma: social media as a campaigning tool and broadcasting channel v. social media to engage communities around issues. In other words, politics v. democracy.
Although Liz Green’s experience was different in this respect, generally (at least until now) it is true that online presence hardly ever translates into more votes at the ballot box. (The far right party Britain First is apparently the most popular political party on Facebook!) Liz stressed that in the digital era everyone has to have an online presence, but she was well aware of the many negative spillovers, from having to be constantly alert about how the opposition is going to use their tweets for its own benefit to trolling and the negativity surrounding many online debates.
It seems to me that as a tool of party politics social media might actually expose politicians and make them vulnerable to virtual attacks and naïve mistakes, as they show their “humanity”, which people might be quite cynical about. The potential for social media probably lies elsewhere, in engaging and mobilising residents and activists around local issues and local needs, offering spaces where citizens can put forward and discuss ideas, away from party politics. So perhaps it shouldn’t be about raising a councillor’s own profile (that might well happen but rather as a positive spillover of the engagement activity around a given issue). As councils and local services might have greater capacity and resources to engage people around local needs online and offline, should councillors (who lack the time and financial resources) start feeling redundant? Or should they start reinventing themselves as caseworkers, advocates, or facilitators? As pointed out by Graham Smith, the role of the councillors is changing as the ecology of internet use changes, and we’re still trying to figure out where we stand as citizens.
We need to think about the objectives first and the tools later, reflecting upon what would work and why. Dan Jellinek put it wisely: democracy first, technology second… but not never! (Shall I start printing it on t-shirts?)