Croydon debates: is social media good for local government?

By - Tuesday 6th March, 2018

Does Twitter air Croydon’s dirty linen in public?

Photo by Matthews Yard, used with permission.

Croydon Debate Club is organised and chaired by Robert Ward, a Citizen contributor and now a Conservative candidate for the local council. After a break of ten months, the club invited Croydonians of any political affiliation to attend Project B on Wednesday 21st February to debate whether social media has a positive or negative impact on local government.

Despite varying levels of Croydon Twitter savvy, it was quickly clear that their answer was going to be ‘it has both’. On the upside, there’s the valuable support provided by Twitter in particular to cultural assets such as Matthews Yard in their early stages, and the fact that Twitter continues to be used by Croydon’s community groups to good effect. And on the downside: social media can be unhelpful for those with mental health issues, and when exchanges are confrontational they create a very bad impression of the town.

More than one ordinary citizen present had been attacked on social media by local politicians

Trolling and users hiding behind anonymity were attendees’ chief concerns. This issue is complicated, however, by the fact that some of the most positive community Twitter accounts do not belong to named individuals.

Twitter is of course used by many local councillors. More than one person present – and these were non-activists tweeting in a private capacity – reported feeling attacked or abused during Twitter exchanges with Croydon politicians. The group wondered whether a social media code of conduct for those holding public office, or running for it, should therefore be considered.

Twitter’s openness was felt to be both an asset (since anyone can take part) but also a problem. Since everyone can see it, when very negative aspects of local life such as fly-tipping are debated Croydon could be said to be airing its dirty political linen in public. This may be one reason for Croydon’s strong association in the public mind with knife crime. Some of those present wondered if alternative forums could be used for the most difficult discussions.

What can Croydon learn from the positive and united social media campaign which promoted London 2012?

Instagram was more warmly regarded, perhaps because it’s hard to fall out over a photograph. Accounts such as East Croydon Cool were felt to help build a positive image of the town. The build-up to the London Olympics in 2012 was cited as a good example of effective social media support. Consensus existed across the political spectrum at the time that London 2012 was positive for the whole country and social media reflected this. The recent campaign for London Borough of Culture status, although unsuccessful, might present an opportunity to replicate such unity in Croydon, as might giving support to the London Park City initiative.

Looking beyond Twitter, concern was expressed that platforms such as YouTube may be doing reputational damage to Croydon below the radar of older generations which don’t use it regularly.

How about rules of engagement for politicians who tweet?

At the end of the meeting, the following proposals emerged:

  • a strategy to coordinate the way that Croydon’s social media presents the town to outsiders
  • the use of awareness days on social media, e.g. International Women’s Day, to create interest and local opportunities
  • rules of engagement for politicians who tweet
  • the possible introduction of a more local discussion platform for issues such as flytipping

For details of future meetings, follow @CronxDebateClub on Twitter. 

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Twitter is extremely useful and doesn’t have to be public. Forgetting about politics, it is wonderful for friends and family. Croydon’s twitterati are a group of people who have attended tweet-ups at Matthews Yard and other places in the past.

  • Patrick Blewer

    Its not just the individual, its the horde. Tribes hunt in packs on twitter. Both left and right, one snotty comment from a general and the footsoldiers go into attack mode.