Should political parties get off Twitter?

Writing for The Independent, Sunny Hundal says the Labour Party should get off Twitter:

It’s about time the Labour Party, especially the leadership, faced up to the uncomfortable truth: we are obsessed by what’s happening on Twitter and it is hurting the party.

Ban it. Delete it. Avoid it at all costs. It’s a wrecking ball to the party’s chances of re-election. The Labour leadership and its MPs should take the decision to stop using Twitter and try life without it.

Sunny is no social media luddite, having been a pioneering blogger and more. So his argument is worth a second look. As he says:

Twitter is like quicksand for the Labour Party – the more it struggles to get heard, the deeper it gets sucked into the ground. The platform has become an echo chamber for factional arguments. And those arguments take place with added ferocity and viciousness because people know Labour MPs are paying attention…

Twitter skews our perspective on the world. The conversations and debates that MPs get sucked into are mostly alien to the public; the time it takes up could be better spent elsewhere…

Twitter also murders nuance. It’s great for MPs who want to pump out slogans and clichés all day, but not for people who know that life is a bit more complicated.

There’s a lot of merit in his points, but I think he draws the wrong conclusion for them. Or at least, looking at these from the Liberal Democrat perspective, the force of the arguments is a lot weaker if applied to the question “should the Lib Dems get off Twitter?”

First, because, as Jack Blanchard’s recent podcast powerfully illustrated, Twitter is where much of the UK’s political media spends so much of its time. Not being on Twitter is like setting up setting up a high street stall… but choosing to stick the stall in a disused car park out of town rather than on the high street.

Second, while it’s certainly true that many of the political debates on Twitter are quite a few steps removed from the reality of the wider public, I think the problem Sunny diagnoses is a more general Labour Party one.

To win elections, you have to win over votes from your opponents. But there’s a strand of Labour culture that values hating opponents rather than understanding, let alone wooing, them. That’s why if you see someone wearing a ‘Never kissed a Tory’ badge, you’d be on pretty sure ground guessing they were a Labour rather than a Lib Dem member.* Twitter might exacerbate the problem, but it’s not the cause of the problem and the problem won’t go away without Twitter.

Third, it’s true that Twitter – and social media algorithms in general – are not the friends of nuance. But nuance is possible. Look at the number of experts who manage nuance and, via social media, get a wider audience for that (including Sam Freedman, who has also discussed Sunny’s article).

Of course, the extreme simplification of fearmongering headlines does better, but it does better in print, over broadcast media and on placards too. And what social media does do is given another route by which nuance can reach a wider audience despite all those other offline obstacles to it. It’s not that long ago, after all, that political social media was dominated by the likes of Barack Obama. You don’t have to froth to tweet and to be read.

Fourth, for those into local politics – those who want to improve people’s lives by fixing potholes rather than debating Palestine, as it were – Twitter can be an excellent route to local communities. That takes a careful, long-term curation of your audience – and a wise use of blocking or muting to keep the over-heated political forth at bay – but when done well, it’s a real boon.

But where I wouldn’t caveat Sunny’s point is the one that spending too much time reading Twitter means you end up with a very distorted view of what matters to most people. Which is why a good use of Twitter is using it to find out what the polls say and so what the public really thinks.

* Yes, there are more Labour than Lib Dem members, so statistically-inclined pedants should remember to weight their guesses accordingly.

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