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.

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.

Online monitoring and political behaviour: survey of UK political parties

 

I popped along to give the keynote speech at a symposium on measuring online political behaviour yesterday organised by Royal Holloway University’s New Political Communications Unit.

In keeping with true keynote style I only managed to get along to
the afternoon sessions at the event, but I still managed to catch a
couple of interesting presentations: one from Rob Pearson at the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office examining the evaluation of its G20 London Summit web presence; the second from Simon Bergman from strategic communications outfit, Information Options.

I was presenting findings from some research I’ve been conducting
into the use of online monitoring by the UK’s three main political
parties: The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats which is an area without any in-depth study to date.

I’ve embedded my presentation
above, but be warned – it’s text heavy (hey, it’s tricky articulating
research findings using fancy images) – but here are some of my main
findings:

  • All political parties report that they track online influencers qualitatively (e.g. Iain Dale, Guido, Political Betting, etc) but they also reported that they engage with these blogs to help set the national media-agenda (which nicely supports my earlier research).
    Equally, all online or influencer monitoring by parties is performed
    informally – that is, not using paid for or third party tracking tools.
  • One respondent told me that monitoring is about “a gut feeling about what’s going on
    and also the UK political blogosphere is small and well organised. In
    my opinion, using influencers this way suggests that parties are
    perhaps only scratching the surface of influencer engagement. In my day
    job I would advise clients to establish a conversational position
    within influencer networks and build trusted relationships.  This is
    key to developing successful long-term engagement programmes – arguably
    the only real way to change behaviour.
    • Parties do engage directly to a limited extent with individuals
      online, particularly at a local level. However, The Labour Party
      appears to be closest to participating in real-time within online
      networks by engaging non-political networks, e.g. marketing/PR and
      media networks to leverage news or content.

 

  • Interestingly Labour also use quantitative tracking to identify
    popular or trending issues and content on the Labour Party website and
    to identify ‘content gaps’ on the Labour website. This insight is used
    to create new content to meet demand.
  • The Liberal Democrats use qualitative monitoring in a different way
    altogether: as an internal communications or customer service tool. By
    reading and staying on top of what Lib Dem campaigners and activists
    are saying, thinking and doing, the party can help out or resolve any
    issues that are emerging at a grassroots level. Really interesting use
    of monitoring.

My presentation also tried to fit these findings into a critical framework based on the workManuel Castells has completed in mapping and analysing the Network Society.

I started from the position that political parties monitor online
networks to ensure they can engage effectively with the aim being to
exert influence influence in the network.

One of the most important measures of influence – or more accurately
– power in networks is defined by Castells as “networking-making power” – that is the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This ability is further categorised into two processes: programmers and switchers.

  1. Programmers have “the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network”
  2. Switchers have “the ability to connect and ensure
    cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining
    resources, while fending off competition from other networks by setting
    up strategic cooperation”

Based on my findings I hypothesise that the Tories are Programmers while Labour are Switchers:

    • Conservatives – early political online networks in
      the UK were (and still are to an extent) right-wing or anti-Government.
      This meant that the Conservatives were able to program the network and
      assign goals that were largely identical to its own. This would
      potentially explain why the Conservatives focus online engagement with
      influential nodes in the network rather and not primarily engaging in
      wider debate around issues.

 

  • Labour – Labour are Switchers as they are seeking
    to cooperate with strategic partner networks through shared goals. For
    example, identifying media networks interested in specific issues and
    leveraging them by combining resources.

Anyway. Those are my main findings. Feel free to challenge, share,
agree with, etc. As always, they open up more questions for further
examination than they answer. But that’s the beauty of research.

Cross-posted to We Are Social.

Tags: online monitoring, politics, Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Network Society, Manuel Castells