Why politicians will never embrace Twitter

Hot on the heels of my blog looking at social media’s blind date with Australian politics, I thought it was timely to remind ourselves why MPs will never fully embrace Twitter.

Most politicians don’t use Twitter to its full potential. It’s important to understand why – and a behind-the-scenes look at political life will help.

But first, what is Twitter’s full potential? Here’s an indication of what you can do to get the most out of Twitter:

  • Follow lots of people or accounts you’re interested in
  • Reply  to people who tweet you
  • Initiate conversations on Twitter (which may occasionally mean butting into a conversation)
  • Use Twitter to share articles or web pages you’ve enjoyed
  • Use Twitter as the hub of other activity: for example, where you’ve been, via Foursquare, or what you’re watching, via Miso, and pictures of your daily life via Twitpic
  • Attend tweet-ups: meet your Twitter friends in real life
  • Use a tool or platform like Hootsuite, Tweetdeck or Seesmic to manage Twitter conversations rather than the relatively uninspiring and flat Twitter.com

 The majority of politicians on Twitter don’t do any of this. And this is perplexing to some Twitter users who are politically-engaged. They want to have Twitter policy debates with pollies, yet their representatives aren’t taking part.

Why am I qualified to blog about this? I used to work in politics. I was an electorate officer, then press officer, then Chief of Staff to a Federal MP. I spent three and a half years on and off in Parliament House in Canberra. I also worked in the media office of a former State Premier, and on a temp basis for other Federal MPs (on returning from a backpacking holiday …) In addition, I’m an avid tweeter.

Politicians have it tough. Lots of people want a piece of them. And they’re bombarded with communications. Yes, it’s part of their job, they are well paid and they wanted the job. But the job isn’t easy and politicians are constantly overwhelmed by communications.

Politicians are bombarded
Politicians are bombarded

Every day, their office is flooded with visitors, telephone calls, emails, faxes and letters. This communication is often made up of complaints, demands, pleas and threats. They have to deal with the needs of their constituents, their party, supporters, detractors and the media – as well as the colleagues, friends and family that you and I deal with every day. All of this under immense public scrutiny. They quickly learn to be very careful about what they say and what they promise.

When you throw social media into the mix, it’s a new form of torture for them.

A platform like Twitter opens up another channel for politicians to deal with and fret over. I’m a big Twitter fan, and I believe in government engaging with the community in the forums that suit the community. But I’m also aware of the demands of using Twitter to its full potential and the demands of politics – and they’re not a good mix. I believe most politicians see Twitter as a danger. It’s another communication channel for them to worry about: a highly visible channel, where things can come undone in a matter of seconds.

If an MP replies to a Twitter follower, where will it end? Many Twitter users get a buzz out of talking to friends, let alone high profile tweeters. One Reply could lead to a long Twitter conversation. Or a harassing, haranguing Twitter dialogue that is staged over days or weeks.

Busy politicians – always cognisant of their comments, their image, their obligations – simply can’t afford to use Twitter as a conversation medium.

Not unless politics itself changes.

And that’s why we’re stuck with the political tweets which do one of the following:

  • Give an update on where the MP is right now (ie “I’m opening a new school”  or “I’m listening to the Prime Minister launch a new policy for our roads”)
  • Take a swipe at the opposing party (“No one will believe KFol/Ranny didn’t know about this massive budget black hole before the election and yet they hid this info from public”)
  • Duplicate what they’ve said elsewhere, ie campaign promises or advertising slogans (“This election is about giving a great people a better government. The Coalition will end the waste, stop the taxes and stop the boats”)

Why on earth would anyone want to subscribe to that sort of Twitter feed?

Most tweeting politicians have made the conscious decision (based on their own experience, timidity, caution, wisdom, or the advice of others), not to use Twitter to talk with the electorate. To them, Twitter is a new broadcast channel – the flavour of the month. They’ve heard about their political leaders using Twitter and they’re simply adding it to their mix of stump speeches, doorknocking, newsletters and press releases.

This isn’t to say that Twitter has no place to play in the election. It will of course continue to be highly useful in breaking news. The Australian press gallery has taken to Twitter. As John Bergin put it, an avid handful of journalistic tweeters has developed a “backchannel” of communications for the community to tap into.

Bergin quotes journalist and academic Julie Posetti, who says “Twitter will be a platform for citizen journalism, interactive political reporting and engagement between politicians, voters, analysts and the fourth estate.”

Yes, there will be some engagement there – but within that mix, very little from politicians themselves. Politicians will continue to broadcast one-way, while voters, analysts and media pore over the words and debate amongst themselves.

There’s no doubt politicians and their staff will tap into the Twitter conversation. It will be another medium where they can monitor community sentiment. Twitter, like most social media platforms, is a great source of market research.

But don’t expect your local MP to debate you online any time soon. To them, it’s simply not worth the risk.

7 thoughts on “Why politicians will never embrace Twitter

  1. So true. I read my local MPs twitter feed recently. Amanda Rishworth, she of the nodding dog in Parliament fame. All one way. YAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNn

  2. With the local government elections due soon you would think more prospective and current councillors would be utilising twitter. It’s cheap, it’s direct and it would be one way to try and get a higher profile when most candidates are up against it in terms of getting into local media. Getting a few voters following and interacting with you about local matters could make a big difference, particularly with non-compulsory voting.

  3. Spot on Michelle. And this is why I do have to give Mr Rann a huge thumbs up as I do get the odd response, and occasionally, even a twitter conversation can develop with the Premier. I find it quite impressive that the State Premier and I can have the occasional interaction… although I sit firmly on the opposite side of the political fence I do find myself defending and even championing him sometimes both via twitter and ‘down the pub’ with mates. This is something I’d never have done only 18 months ago.

  4. An excellent blog Michelle. Even being just a Local Government councillor I often experience information overload and a communications traffic jam – especially if you want to be sincere, chase things up and respond to everything personally.

    If you don’t you can get a very public smack on the hand – hence there is a considerable risk.

    Why are other candidates not using Twitter? That easy, they have expressed to me in no uncertain terms their lack of interest and understanding in the technology. They have declined to have an iPhone and tablet PC (and training – ALL at no cost!) to go paperless – some have even made fun of me for doing so.

    My plan is to be honest and have credibility by earning my place in a community I feel I share values with – I love Twitter, I’ve made some friends, found likeminded people and think it’s great fun!

  5. Even if they aren’t willing to engage, pollies should at least be listening to the conversation on social media and other non-traditional channels. These are after all the voice of their constituents.

    I’m constantly surprised when I meet a pollie who isn’t aware of this conversation or dismisses it just because it didn’t happen in mainstream media.

  6. Yeah, most of the time people tell me that they don’t really understand Twitter and that’s why they don’t use it, I guess it goes back to the old saying “it’s not what you know it’s who you know” and there are a lot of people on Twitter who are worth knowing, in that sense Facebook is boring, all of the bright intelligent people are on Twitter!

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