What’s more important in politics? Winning votes or starting a Twitterstorm?
If you listened to some of the left’s Twitter warriors, you would think that ‘winning on Twitter’ was more important than winning at the ballot box.
Think back a few months to when a left winger called Dr Eoin Clarke started a hashtag called ‘#Cameronmustgo’. For several days, the hashtag top trended on Twitter in the UK, competing with Beliebers and Directioners for the top Twitter spot. Many on the left thought the election was basically won. They lambasted the BBC for not leading the news bulletins with it.
Top trending on Twitter seemed to mean job done for many on Twitter. Some were effectively arguing that Cameron shouldn’t bother with an election and should resign immediately.
Contrast that to the stark reality to the left of their worst election result for decades.
That is why Twitter particularly and social media generally has been a disaster for the left generally and Labour in particular.
For the political fringes, Twitter can remove the need to come into contact with people who might actually disagree with you – otherwise known as ordinary voters. Social media has been great at bringing together devotees of minority pursuits. It’s been a great leveller – breaking down barriers and disrupting tired old models. But in politics, social media can provide a chimeric quality, making people believe that there is much more support for a set of ideas than is actually the case.
Social media can provide an echo chamber that brings together people of an entrenched political persuasion more easily than was the case before. Whereas previously people on the hard left or right knew they were relatively at the margins, they can now take part in a self-contained, self-selecting internet community in which everybody agrees with them. Groupthink rules in this scenario. And that is often literally the case. The aforementioned Dr Eoin Clarke actually blocks anybody (including me) who has the nerve to disagree with him.
Any community in which dissent is not tolerated is not going to result in a fair reflection of public opinion or the public generally.
Why seek to persuade floating voters if you can have your prejudices upheld within minutes on Twitter? To some on Twitter’s political community, a retweet, a dodgy infographic or a flood of tweets in agreement is so much easier than having to confront the realities of economic responsibility or public scepticism. Twitter’s a tremendous tool, but as a model of political persuasion it has its limits. There are 15 million regular Twitter users in the UK, but they are dominated by the age group that is least likely to vote and least represented in the 65+ demographic that is most likely to vote.
This kind of environment is particularly geared towards protest. “Retweet if you oppose…” or “join Labour for £3 if you oppose” is so much more effective than saying “Labour will not regain power until it regains trust on economic credibility.” To galvanise protest on Twitter is far easier than building up a credible voice for government. That’s why both UKIP and the Labour left have mastered the art of groupthink in the Twitter echo chamber and the Labour moderates have been left miles behind. The echo chamber of the extremes can be contrasted with the very effective use of social media for micro-targeting by the Conservatives at the election.
This is reflected in the membership figures of Labour. They have as many as 50,000 new members since the 2010 election, galvanised by the internet and by protest against austerity. A left wing echo chamber has proved to be a useful recruiting sergeant for the Labour left – persuading many that their view is shared by millions and isn’t a lost cause after all. These new members seem to be tilting heavily towards Corbyn in a leadership campaign where every deviation from left wing orthodoxy is met by cries of ‘red Tory’ from a left wing Twitter mob.
Labour’s moderates might have a compelling response to the election defeat. They might point out, as Liz Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt have done that Labour can’t win without winning back Tory voters in England and regaining their reputation for economic credibility. But such rational talk isn’t being heard amidst the noise of protest and easy answers. There’s no need to confront difficult truths when social media self confirms a comfort zone.
Social media has been transformative and tremendous for business and politics. It has empowered the consumer and the citizen, allowed for micro-targeting and disrupted old industries and a tired old establishment. But as Labour looks down the barrel of a Corbyn leadership driven by an internet led insurgency, there’s a strong argument that social media has been a disaster for the Labour Party and its moderates.
Winning the internet isn’t the same as winning the country. Twitterstorms represent a gigantic form of self-delusion. The election confirmed that to Labour in the starkest terms. If political parties are governed by the whims of self selecting social media circles, they will find it increasingly difficult to reach out to voters.