Bernard Keane has an especially interesting piece in Crikey entitled Twitter and the prosaic reality of Digital Democracy (registration required). It’s an insightful look at the emergence of Australian politicians into the world of social media and just how well (or not) they are doing.
Of particular note is Keane’s observation that:
It’s now well-established that some politicians use Twitter effectively and some — well, most, do not. Some recognise the opportunity to interact with voters and communicate with overlapping communities of interest. Others see it merely as just another medium for pumping out their message and distributing their press releases.
Put another way, that’s the media’s favoured political dichotomy of authenticity v spin.
The feet-first, mostly blind jumping in of politicians (or at least their supposedly well-informed (cough) staffers) into the world of social media is an especially interesting aspect of the emergence of Government 2.0 (or in this case, and more accurately, Politics 2.0).
Engaging with their constituencies online is a massive opportunity for politicians. But it is, as Bernard notes, fraught with risk, particularly the risk of coming off as focussed on broadcast and being disingenuous. There are few politicians with social media presences, especially in Australia, who end up looking and sounding as if they really care about a conversation on substantive issues between themselves and their voting public. It really is a wall of noise most of the time. Ill-considered, party political, non-conversational noise.
In Australia, where we have compulsory suffrage, I actually think the opportunity afforded politicians by engaging in social media is greater than that overseas, where social media is often used as a tool to “get out the vote”. Here, instead, politicians have the opportunity to listen and respond to issues in the public mind on a scale they have never had before.
Evidence of the level of engaged Australians interested in politics is there in spades each week as the Australian public watch Q and A and use the#qanda hashtag. This ought to be prompt enough. Let alone #730report, #insiders, #lateline and others such as the commentary and follow-along when Question Time is on through #qt.
They have an effective 24×7 town hall running; something where they can deeply connect with constituents who have strong and well-considered views on issues rather than the “nothing better to do” crowd of NIMBYs and fringe opinions who lob up at the local shopping center and school hall meetings.
What we have here is an opportunity to reimagine our democracy in the shape of Habermas‘ Public Sphere – where the discourse amongst the public resolves and shapes opinion, policy and legislation to truly meet the demands of the nation.
More than anything, I’d like to see the politicians joining the online world seeking out really good advice (maybe even mine) so that they can and do engage in a way the growing public on social media channels is ready to respond to constructively rather than shutting down.
The impending federal election is certainly seeing the federal politicians come out of hiding and into the social media world. They’ve all come a good long way since before the last election. But not nearly far enough.
As a microcosm of this phenomenon, let’s just look at the ACT, where I live. The experience extrapolates out for any of you reading.
I contacted the offices of all the candidates (Senate and House) in the two local electorates prior to the 2007 election and offered to help them (gratis) with some digital and social media ideas for their campaigns, just to see what happened. Every one of them knocked me back with a resounding “not interested”.
For some of the locals, Kate Lundy being an obvious stand out, things have changed dramatically. For others, not so much.
Where, for example, are the two new Labor candidates in the ACT‘s seats – Gai Brodtmann and Andrew Leigh? Sure, their election to the House is pretty much fait accompli, but that doesn’t mean they ought to ignore the online and social world. Even more importantly, where are the Liberal candidates? They are visibly MIA. The Greens? Mostly silent (though several of the Greens, and the party generally are active on Twitter in a mostly positive way). Though Lin Hatfield-Dodds does have a presence it is all broadcast and no conversation – why, Lin, why?
Politicians everywhere have a massive opportunity for engagement and conversation through social media. My greatest hope is that they can learn and understand that it’s not another soapbox. Of course, it’s far from the only channel politics and politicians need to be present in; I’m not so naive as to think that. Politics must go on as it always has, in the physical world. The online is simply a specific and useful opportunity that can be exploited in a positive and valuable way.