Vox populi, vox dei? Not in Croydon’s Twittersphere

By - Wednesday 20th February, 2013

Politicians love to talk of a ‘silent majority’ – Croydon Tweeters have a problem with a noisy minority

Log on to Twitter, have a search for #Croydon and take a look at what comes up. Frankly, it’s a mess. But somewhere between spamverts for fitness classes, cheap computer repairs, and teens detailing their night-time antics in Tiger Tiger, there’s an interesting phenomenon that often drags my attention away from any sense of productivity based in reality: Twitter politics.

It’s no secret that I’m politically active Croydon. I’m state-educated locally and was born in Mayday so I know the area well enough to care about what happens to it. It’s been just over four years since I started helping the Conservatives in Croydon and it’s approaching a year since I started working in Parliament for Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central.

Many people can’t understand why anyone would be a member of a political party: they can’t see the point or the appeal. For me it’s very much like supporting a football team – some follow in the traditions of the family, some have an experience that makes them pick a particular side, and some people genuinely think that one team is better than the rest.

It’s entirely fair to say that I want my team to win. I think that our track record demonstrates why we should keep control of the council and I know Gavin does an incredible job representing his constituents. From freezing council tax and improving education standards in our schools locally, to fighting for mental health equality and Lillian’s Law nationally – my team is doing a lot of good, so I feel honour-bound to tell people about it.

In the arsenal of political communication there are a variety of weapons at our disposal, and we understandably use them all. We engage regularly with the local press; reply to thousands of letters and e-mails from constituents; regularly hold advice surgeries or visit residents for often incredibly sensitive appointments; host public meetings on important issues and produce leaflets – all with a view to helping people in Croydon.

Why should councillors waste their time on Twitter when almost none of their constituents use it?

In recent years social media has started influencing the political landscape nationally, but despite appearances locally that’s still far from the case. There’s an important reason for that: sheer lack of numbers.

The last census revealed that Croydon has a population of roughly 363,000 people; these are represented by 70 councillors divided into 24 wards. That’s about 5,000 people per councillor. The @YourCroydon council Twitter feed currently has 4,005 followers; the @CroydonLabour account has 1,808 and the recently set-up @CroydonTories has 301. Using the 2010 parliamentary turnout for the three constituencies the Conservatives received 60,717 and Labour received 56,922. It’s a similar position for council elections. The number of people that are using Twitter politically locally is paltry in comparison to the number who vote, which itself is a fraction of the borough’s population. These Twitter numbers have simply no influence on the political reality.

Of the councillors in Croydon only a handful use Twitter more than a few times a week. And from those numbers, from a nakedly political perspective, you can easily understand why. Frankly, why should they waste their time when almost none of their constituents use it?

I constantly try to challenge this mindset, with a view that there’s a broader benefit to engaging with the general populace, but there’s no escaping that they have a point. On all sides most councillors have full-time jobs and families. They sacrifice vital family time to hold weekend surgeries, visit residents’ associations in drafty scout huts, or attend lengthy evening council meetings during the week. Sure, they get an allowance, but their time is finite especially when a family is involved. It’s understandable that for many there is no temptation to add regular Twitter use to their plethora of other responsibilities. But there is another group that use Twitter politically in Croydon. They aren’t necessarily members of a political party, but they more than make up for that with a veracious appetite for faux-political lobbying.

‘Political banter’ in Croydon is not only messy but needlessly emotional

For every one person attempting to proactively engage in politics using Twitter, there are 10 who attempt to bring the person down. From needless pedantry, picking apart 140 character statements to justify a fundamentally weak assertion, to outright character assassination using childish ad hominem attacks – there is a class in the Croydon Twitter commentariat that seems to delight in aggressive contrarianism. There is no point or purpose to their musings, they will not be swayed by evidence or reasoned debate. They are the extremists, the trolls, out to magnify minor flaws and tear holes in the genuine-hearted and good work that many residents do for the community. But they are apparently ‘not political’.

But it’s their god-given right to do whatever they like online – freedom of speech must be protected. They are entitled to their views, just as I am entitled to disagree. But from an outsider’s perspective, looking in at the maelstrom of ‘political banter’ in Croydon, it’s not only messy but needlessly emotional, on the whole tangential and entirely resistant to change. When a belief is involved, politics gets messy.

If you talk positively about Croydon, you are glossing over the horrors. If you are critical of Croydon, you are ignoring a more important element. There is no victory. There is no satiation.

The political Twitterati in Croydon do not represent the majority. Left-of-centre views may outweigh centre-right opinions 10:1 online; but the reality is moderately weighted in the other direction.

Twitter does add value in local politics: it can help residents to learn about your projects or to contact you easily to find out a piece of information. Many message me and the team on Twitter and we then help them in real life. It’s part of the gig and I love it. But to have full-on intelligent debate is nigh on impossible – it’s too easy to misunderstand an argument or misread the emotional level of a conversation when there’s a character limit involved.

I don’t mind though. I know that real, local politics in Croydon is shaped on the ground. By talking to real people, going to real meetings and doing good solid community and ward work. Twitter is useful, Twitter is fun. Twitter will not shape the future of the Council in Croydon.

Mario Creatura

Mario Creatura

Mario is a lifelong Croydon resident. He works for Heineken as their Public Affairs Manager. He has previously worked in Parliament as a researcher for Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central. Mario has been a Conservative Councillor for Coulsdon West on Croydon Council since May 2014.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gilesap Anne Giles

    Congratulations. What a fantastic article – and how very, very true!

  • http://twitter.com/davidwhite020 david white

    Twitter isn’t everything, but social media are an important part of modern life and in my opinion anyone with an interest in politics will benefit from engaging.

    The influence of Twitter can’t be measured just by the number of followers particular sites have. I am all the time meeting people who have seen something of interest on Twitter, or on one of the numerous blogs which are associated with it (including Inside Croydon and The Croydon Citizen). Many of these people do not tweet themselves; figures show that about 50% of Twitter users are “passive” users.

    Mario excuses the local councillors who ignore Twitter by saying they have busy family lives. However they have all put themselves forward for election and they all receive allowances of over £11,000 pa (many of them much more). It saddens me when they will not engage in debate. For example the Waddon councillors broke a promise to oppose the Beddington incinerator but refuse to answer questions about this on Twitter (or elsewhere for that matter).

    Gavin Barwell MP, for whom Mario works, is just as busy as any of the councillors, but he does engage with Twitter and is willing to debate.

    Twitter debate doesn’t have to be bad-tempered or negative. There have been many constructive and useful debates involving Croydon twitterati. Tony Newman, Leader of the Croydon Labour Group, described Twitter as ” a giant electronic public meeting”. At its best that is exactly what it is.

    • Stephen Giles

      The problem is that one or two twitterers get their knickers in a completely unmanageable twist when their own set of rules and views are disagreed with. (I know that a sentence should not end with a preposition!!!) What follows can only be described as antics which belong the school playground – “I don’t like what you said, so you’re not my friend anymore”!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    I like David White’s last sentence below – that’s certainly the best that Twitter can be. But Mario Creatura is correct that it often isn’t. The line between politically combative and just plain rude is too frequently crossed.

    But ‘needless pedantry, picking apart….statements to justify weak assertion….. character assassination…… childish ad hominem attacks’ sound very familiar. Surely Twitter is simply taking its lead from the House of Commons?

    • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

      This was my reaction too — isn’t this basically what party politics is? “My team is better than your team!”

      Twitter is what you make of it. Follow people you want to read, don’t follow people you don’t. Personally I follow very few Croydon politicians because it irritates the hell out of me to see adults being so childish to each other on Twitter.

      • http://twitter.com/MarioCreatura Mario Creatura

        Disagree! Party politics is about finding holes in the opposition to make them better AND to highlight the choice for voters come election time. Democracy is about trying to give voters a clear choice and debating is just one of the ways of doing that. Doesn’t make it a bad thing!
        Your second point is spot on – but the reality of politics locally is far more polite than the papers and Twitter would have you believe. Most of the Councillors get on with each other from different political parties and it’s all very civil. The fighting in the Council chamber or in the papers or on Prime Minister’s Questions is purposefully designed to expose flaws in your opponent to make their decisions and voters decisions stronger.
        I for one am happy that’s the case and don’t think it’s childish in the slightest!

        • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

          The amount of choice available to the voter is laughably tiny.

          Also, I don’t think the type of verbal combat I’m talking about really does make anyone better in any useful sense. It makes you better at playing the game, sure, but it doesn’t make you better at making thoughtful long-term decisions (which is what, after all, we would like our politicians to be doing). Deliberately misinterpreting your opponent, refusing to give them time to think, mocking them for saying “I don’t know”… in any other context that would be called bullying. And if this really was aimed at making people “better”, you’d be doing it just as much if not more to the people on your own “side”.

          There’s a great post somewhere that I wanted to link to but can’t find (it’s hard to Google for) — possibly on Language Log or some other linguistics website — pointing out that political discourse works in a deeply unnatural way. In normal human communication, if person A says something that person B doesn’t understand in the way A intends, B will ask clarifying questions, A will reply, and together A and B will come to a state where B understands what A meant. In political discourse, all these latter stages are cut out. Language is given more importance than meaning, because point-scoring is easier when you can focus on the shallow representation of meaning rather than the true meaning of what someone wants to communicate.

          Another relevant article is Charlie Stross’s piece on how the system is exclusionary, self-perpetuating, and essentially a local rather than a global maximum. Following on from that, I suspect that the only way to fix the current system might be to throw it away and start again.

    • http://twitter.com/MarioCreatura Mario Creatura

      The sheer lack of numbers makes Twitter locally far and away not a true reflection of the real state of politics in Croydon. That was my point! People get very emotional on Twitter but I’m not sure it’s intentional. From experience it’s incredibly frustrating when someone misunderstands a 140 character point and you are unable to respond in as much detail as you’d like. They can’t help misunderstanding and you can’t help being frustrated and anger erupts. It’s a vicious cycle that has no bearing on local politics!

  • Journeyman

    Mario, there is so much wisdom in this.