Demos’ Virtually Members report is virtually useful

The centre-left [sic] think-tank, Demos, has a new report out presenting some interesting insights about the virtual ‘membership’ of the UK’s three main political parties. Titled, Virtually Members: The Facebook and Twitter Followers of UK Political Parties, the briefing paper is the latest publication to come from Demos’ Centre for Social Media Analysis. I’ve embedded the full paper below:

Virtually Members by Simon Collister

Despite, however, the snazzy name and Demos’ past reputation for leading-edge research into social media (I can remember attending a number of briefing events about social media and political engagement back in 2009/10) the report feels fairly lightweight – even if it is a vaguely dressed up corporate sponsorship vehicle for Tweetminster which provides the authors with analytics technology.

For example, in 2013 after two US election cycles and a UK general election with social media playing a central part; the coalition embedding edemocracy into parliamentary process; not to mention the numerous examples of social media empowered social movements, such as UKUncut, 38 Degrees, etc, the report’s opening statement hardly sets the pulse racing:

“The internet and social media are having a profound effect on British politics: it will re-shape the way elections are won and lost, how policy is made, and how people get involved in formal and informal politics.”

Equally disappointing is the report’s focus on evaluating social media quantities (fans, followers, etc) for main political parties and attempting to equate these with some comparable measure of party membership. Didn’t we move beyond such quantitative fixations years ago? Even with caveats adopting such a straw man position risks undermining the overall findings – which do make some salient points about political participation and mobilisation – from the outset.

More worryingly, I can’t see any attempt in the analysis to account for the spam followers we know most (if not all) Twitter account accrue; not to mention the phantom ‘Likes’ Facebook (or third parties) seem to generate, thus boosting fans and skewing quantitative analyses. And this isn’t a particularly low key phenomenon at the moment.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but a failure to acknowledge and engage with the messy realities of social media in a post-IPO world make the Demos paper difficult to take too seriously, which is a shame as the CASM (and the team behind it) appears to have a lot of potential.

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