Is social media and local government a help or a hindrance?

By - Friday 16th February, 2018

Local news outlets, with fewer and fewer journalists, find easy pickings mostly on Twitter

Is social media and local government a help or a hindrance?
Image by Paul Inkles, used under Creative Commons licence.

Social media is the new(ish) thing. There’s hardly a television news item that doesn’t mention it somewhere. Broadcasters want to show they’re hip, and in a world where people expect their news to be instant and free it gives journalists an easy news item without having to leave their desks.

Local politics has gingerly dipped a toe into these murky, swirling waters. Council meetings are webcast and eventually end up on Youtube. Some local politicians and political activists have Twitter accounts, which they use to a greater or lesser extent. Their output is a mixed diet of promotional information, party propaganda, and mainly fruitless sparring with each other (I plead guilty as charged). Yet social media provides us with new opportunities for communication and discussion, which could benefit local politics and engage local people. The problem is how.

There is scant evidence so far that these opportunities are being seized. Webcast Council meetings are pale echoes of the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (‘PMQs’), generating much more heat than light. After PMQs political pundits do their weekly assessment of who won on points, rarely is a knock-out blow delivered, to their audience of political anoraks. The audience for Croydon Council meetings is, I suspect, microscopic.

There are two hurdles (at least) to creating something more useful

Both are in the hands of the audience more than the politicians. If the audience wants it, and most importantly is prepared to vote for it, then things will change. If not, then it won’t, and social media will be just another forum for the Punch and Judy politics we know so well.

Firstly we must allow our politicians to take risks, which is not a game they currently feel wins them any votes. They calculate they lose more votes from people who would otherwise support them whilst gaining little or no extra support from those who don’t. Experience tells them this is so when their every sentence is picked over for signs they are not toe-ing the party line. Boris Johnson, and to a lesser extent John McDonnell, love them or hate them, are the only politicians I am aware of who are prepared to take such risks. Gauge from your own reaction to whichever of them you don’t agree with and think about whether that might encourage others to follow a more open approach.

Secondly we have to recognise a fundamental of all problems, but especially the difficult ones dealt with by politicians: there are no easy answers. Every solution has a downside, more money spent here means less elsewhere, or more taxes or more borrowing. Some voters prefer lower taxes, some like higher taxes, although they prefer those higher taxes are paid by someone else. Yet the public craves easy answers and rarely are they prepared to spend the necessary time to understand the subtleties and the trade-offs between options. It is far easier to rely on tribal loyalties and glib generalisations.

Attempts at constructive dialogue quickly degenerate into verbal jousting

This means trying to catch the other side out, or to shift the debate from where it is to where you think you can score a point. Onlookers cheer their side on or rapidly get bored and drift away. Nobody learns anything, biases are confirmed, and no minds are changed. Yet there are opportunities. There are people who I have never met, with whom I disagree almost as much as I disagree with Jeremy Corbyn, but with whom I am able to hold a civilised discussion on Twitter. I learn, I understand their point of view, and sometimes I even change my mind. Could such a dialogue be achieved in local politics? Perhaps it can.

There are practical issues. How do we maintain confidentiality? Should we respond to anonymous people of whom we have no knowledge, even whether they live in Croydon? Are we prepared to tolerate misunderstandings, mistakes, or the oft blamed spell-checker without flouncing off in indignant faux-outrage, the favourite posture of the partisan twitterati?

These and other questions on social media and local politics are up for discussion at the first meeting of the second season of the Croydon Debate Club “Social media and local government – help or hindrance?” Join us at 7:30 pm on 21st February at Project B. Book your tickets here.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Interesting. I won’t be able to attend though.