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.

Hansard Society report on Parliament and #futurenews

The Hansard Society has published an interesting report, #futurenews – The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World, that examines the ways in which Parliament can (and should) adapt to social media to enhance its communication and engagement with the public.

Future News: Can Parliament seize the opportunity to better communicate parliamentary democracy

The reports main findings are that:

  • Parliament needs to adopt to social, mobile, data and video-led digital communications
  • Parliament has the potential to play a crucial part as “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy” – but one which is largely absent from popular political debate
  • Parliament needs to spend time identifying key online communities and developing ways to communicate better with them (i.e. faster and using more granular, social content)

In order to step up and start meeting these challenges, the reports authors argue that the following actions must be prioritised and implemented:

  1. “Appoint a Community Team (for each House or on a bi-cameral basis) to build links with online communities with specific audience interests and an AV media officer to produce rich in-house content to populate the website and be disseminated to a variety of audiences
  2. Invest in its broadcasting and digital infrastructure to enable a wider range of online sites to take its material
  3. Produce contextualised video news releases and make video of up to two minutes’ duration available copyright free, with attribution for any user to download and embed
  4. Revise the  broadcasting rules, particularly for regional select committee visits
  5. Live-log, time-code, tag and key-word Hansard, and improve the website search functionality in order to enable people to access relevant material more quickly”

These findings and recommendations are interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that none of results and outcomes are particularly ground-breaking – at least if you work in a digital PR or social media agency. But it is striking that none of the, even fundamental steps, have yet to be considered let alone implemented by an institution described by the report authors as the “apex of our democracy”!

Secondly, a lot of this reminds me of the work I delivered with We Are Social as part of a project with Parliamentary Outreach, the marketing arm – if you will – of Parliament*. This project was focused on opening up the work and processes of Parliamentary committees – and as an aside, it’s interesting to note that the report intimates the ethos and perhaps some of the original actions from the project have filtered through to a practical level within Committee business (see p.37 and the #askgove example). One key learning from this project – and something commonly experienced across established institutions – was that while the recommended actions were widely recognised as imperative for engaging digitally and opening up the organisation, dominant cultures and stakeholders prevailed, limiting the potential of the project.

This latter point is one issue that the report needs to consider as a next step for ensuring its accurate recommendations become reality. There are, of course, many ways to embed social norms within traditionally hierarchical organisations but I think another factor that the Hansard Society and Parliament need to consider is the presumption of centrality and self-importance of Parliament and by extension, democracy.

The report itself describes Parliament as occupying an “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy”. But is this a risky start point for socialising Parliament’s communication (and by necessity, Parliament itself)? Based on both the disintegration of public trust in Parliament and democratic institutions as well as the empowering of ‘ordinary citizens’ through social technologies surely a more appropriate starting point would one of deference and a recognition that both in terms of political purpose and social media knowledge and practice, Parliament has a lot of catching up to with wider society.

 

* It always amused me that Parliamentary Outreach’s portcullis logo on We Are Social’s client page was consistently mistaken for Ministry of Sound!

Coalition Government to introduce epetitions that will influence parliamentary debate

It's been a short while since my last post, and in that time we've acquired a new Conservative-Lib Dem government.  So what better way to get back back to blogging than drawing attention to an interesting piece of Conservative policy that offers a major opportunity for campaigners (especially digitally active ones) to get their issue on the the government's agenda – and potentially have a real impact on legislation.

The policy in question is referenced in the Coalition's final Programme for Government in the section on Political Reform where it sets out the following commitment:

"We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be
eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most
signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to
be voted on in Parliament."

Pretty radical?

In essence it seems the government is committing to ensure that any petition over the magical 100,000 number will eligable for debate in Parliament.

Even more interesting is the secondary commitment to allow public petitions with the "most signatures" to also table bills. Now this second point is rather vague but I'm sure that I remember reading in Conservative policy documents during the election campaign outlined petitions with 1m signatures or more would be tabled as bills.

Two immediate thoughts spring to mind here.

The first, prompted by a Glen Tarman on the ecampaigning forum, covers the implications for campaigning groups – especially those effective at online mobilisation.

Glen argues that a "high-visibility impactful campaign is not always […] correlative to the numbers game" and of course he's right. But he also points to recent examples where significant numbers of people have 'signed-up' to social change causes far in excess of the benchmark of 100,000 set by the current policy:

  • Jubilee 2000 petition – 2,960,262 UK signatures
  • Make Poverty History – 500,000 petition signatures (90% of signatures were online)
  • Trade Justice Movement – 750,000 signatures
  • Downing Street Road Tax epetition – 1.8m online signatures

And that's what I find interesting with the 100,000 (and possibly 1m) signatures benchmark. In the age of email, social media and social networking it really isn't too difficult (although it's not *easy* either) to mobilise significant volumes of people around an important issue.

As the list above shows, even less-mainstream aid issues can generate enough signatures to secure a parliamentary debate. Compare this with the infamous road tax epetition example or this England/World Cup Facebook Page which has generated 140,000+ Fans in 48 hours.

So what are the implications for professional campaigners? One the one hand the policy taps into our digitally networked age where online sign-ups and 'Likes' lower the barriers to taking part in social change movements and campaigns.

Conversely, it can be argued that this will enshrine a culture of 'slacktivism' in our political system which in turn may lead to a de-incentivising and disenfranchising of real-life action and its corollary, an increase in disproportionate policing and political prosecutions

While I'm not suggesting this is definitively the intention of the policy, it is – in my mind at least – a possible outcome. Of course, this may also have the opposite effect. Who can say yet.

The other implication of the policy worth considering is whether a distinction will be made between public petitions and NGO-driven petitions?

As well as the likelihood of generating different petition topics (e.g. international trade justice vs domestic road pricing) it's arguable that NGOs or professional campaigns are likely to consistently mobilise 100,000 signatories on 'progressive issues', as opposed to the weirder – or 'self-interested' as Glen more appropriately puts it – ones.

Any decisions around implementing the policy will need to factor in these issues if the initiative is to be seen as credibie – especially to a traditionally hostile media when it comes to anything remotely disintermediating and web-based.

It will be fascinating to see how this policy issue will develop and play out as it's clearly an integral part of the Conservative's plans for parliamentary reform that aims to put citizen
empowerment at its core, e.g. the web-based Public
Reading Stage
for new laws.

Add to this EU plans to introduce a similar petition policy and we could start see a radical political agenda that involves and enfranchises citizens at the core of democracy. But then that might open another debate as to who and how criteria for citizenship are constructed. But I'll save that for another blog post.

Mumsnet election: an analysis

The following was posted as a guest post at Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit blog.

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

Is this what cutting edge Internet and government research looks like in the UK?

Egov screenshot

Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in edemocracy, politics and the internet. In fact I'd go as far as to say I'm passionate about the ways in which social media and the internet ca be used to empower individuals and government to make our lives and the world around us a better place.

With this in mind you can imagine my excitement to see via Twitter that two towering forces of academia, Oxford University's Internet Institute and London School of Economics Public Policy Group had launched a website, Government on the Web, dedicated to:

"improving knowledge and understanding of e-government and the impact of web-based technologies on government"

"Awesome", I thought. An online repository for research, case studies, practical guides, etc.

Imagine my horror to see the site that has been developed. Take a look at the screenshot above. Yes. That's it. No, I've not searched the Way Back Machine.  That site was designed, built and published *last week*.

I won't list all the failings here – there's too many and it's too mean. But, holy crap, is this representative of the cutting-edge research being done by teams of UK experts in the field? Wow.

Back in 2007 I went to a one-day conference exploring the future of media at Goldsmith's University and blogged that the experience left me feeling that a lot of UK academics don't yet get social media.

Two years on and this site doesn't fill me with much hope that things have changed. The Oxford Internet Institute is twinned with Harvard's Berkman Center? Home to Doc Searls' and his ground-breaking work into VRM. But looking at this site you wouldn't get that impression.

I'll say it again for added emphasis: Wow. Really.