Political

MPs on Facebook: leading the way or forgetting to change the defaults?

A new study of MPs on Facebook shows widespread use of the social network by Parliamentarians, but also a range of curious choices about how to use the medium which may in part reflect a failure to change default settings.

The study, carried out by Woodnewton Associates and based on evidence gathered in May this year, found that:

  • 26% of MPs have a Facebook presence (a page or profile).
  • Liberal Democrat MPs lead the way in Facebook usage, with 65% being on Facebook. 25% of Labour MPs and 21% of Conservative MPs are on Facebook.

Whilst a static presence in other places may make sense, to really get benefit out of Facebook you have to update your presence at least semi-regularly. How do MPs fare? It is a mixed picture:

  • 30% of MP presences are updated at least weekly
  • A further 35% are updated less often but still at least once a month

There seem to be two groups of MP users: those who either directly or with the help of staff or volunteers use Facebook regularly and as a serious part of their job, and then those who have a Facebook presence, use it a little but really are just either doing it for show or are feeling their way very cautiously.

Hence the Woodnewton Associates study found that:

  • 31% of MPs do not provide a link through to their own website
  • 46% of MPs do not provide contact information
  • 64% of MPs have fewer than 500 friends/fans

At the time of the survey,  the five MPs with the most friends / fans on Facebook were:

George Galloway (Respect) 15,766
David Cameron (C) 8,782
Nick Clegg (LD) 5,003
Andrew Rosindell (C) 4,478
Steve Webb (LD) 4,222

MPs do seem surprisingly keen to advertise their relationship status (43%) but very reluctant to mention their party’s website (6%).

Many MPs only let people view the full information about them on Facebook if someone becomes a friend first or is in the Parliamentary network, which is a rather odd decision for people wanting to reach out to the public.

The report itself suggests that the reason is that MPs have deliberately chosen to use Facebook to network with Parliamentary colleagues and staff, and hence these settings are deliberate. I am very doubtful of that, partly because of my experience of advising MPs on how to use Facebook, including getting the first UK political part leader on Facebook, I never came across an MP who desired to do this.

More likely, it is a mistake and MPs do not realise that they are restricting the degree to which people can find their information on Facebook. As Facebook’s privacy settings and their defaults have regularly changed, it is hard to be absolutely sure, but it is most likely that MPs have simply been leaving settings at their initial default values without realising or considering the impact of this rather.

Opening up your privacy settings is in fact a key step to making good use of Facebook if you are an elected politician, as I covered in an article for Total Politics earlier this year.

All in all, the report paints a mixed picture. Many MPs are on Facebook and using it well, but there is also a lot of scope for most of them to improve. It’s not just a matter of opening up settings and updating content, it’s also a matter of looking at ways to take traditional campaigning and communication methods and using Facebook to reach audiences that the old ways are no longer very effective at getting to. Creating groups to support individual campaigns is a good example.

For MPs in safe seats, there is little incentive to do this, but for those in marginal seats – and for candidates hoping to unseat MPs – the next few months should provide plenty of time and incentive to make greater use of Facebook. If you have spotted any good examples of this so far, do post up a comment.

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