It’s time for all the parties to do political engagement on social media properly

Existing social media platforms aren’t providing effective political engagement, because they weren’t designed to, says David Evans, director of policy and community at the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

Call for new digital platform for political debate

The way that many of us live our lives online nowadays is naturally spilling over into the way people engage with politics and with politicians. 

Accompanying the rise of online campaigns, e-petitions and political memes, the internet and social media specifically is shifting the ways in which citizens engage with their elected representatives. This shift is as fundamental as it was with the advent of radio or television.

Huge numbers of citizens have taken to social media platforms to communicate with their local MPs, but with wildly varying levels of success.

Some MPs try to avoid digital communications altogether. Others struggle to manage the immense volume of direct public engagement made possible by social media channels. Many receive daily abuse or even death threats online.

Social media companies are not the enemy here; the problem is that these platforms are being used to perform a specific democratic and societal function for which they were not designed.

Politicians of all parties have highlighted this issue and its negative impact on the political process.

Campaigns like Reclaim the Internet have been set up to draw attention to and combat online abuse, while internet entrepreneurs like Martha Lane-Fox and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee have individually been asking how social media platforms could rethink their approach to encourage the sharing of more constructive thoughts.

Against that backdrop, and with a general election imminent, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, and think tank Demos have published a report detailing just how unsatisfactory the current situation is for politicians and citizens alike – and setting out why we believe a new ‘digital commons’ is needed.

This includes the report’s findings that over a three month period, 1 in 20 tweets sent to MPs were abusive. The most abused MPs, which tend to be the more senior figures such as the party leaders or other frontbenchers, received 1 abusive message for every 10 they received.

The report also demonstrates how the number of tweets MPs receive, and their ability to effectively manage and respond to them, also varied wildly. Some MPs received an average of 10,000 messages every day, while others received fewer than five a day. This obviously presents huge potential inconsistencies between MPs’ abilities to respond to a member of the public who has chosen to contact them via social media.

Our report makes it clear that the political engagement online, where citizens increasingly interact with their elected representatives, is not functioning in a manageable or societally beneficial way.

This needs to be treated as seriously as concerns about the Palace of Westminster, where our elected representatives meet and interact, which is in such a bad state of disrepair that the functioning of day-to-day politics is increasingly difficult.

To address this, the government is being urged to spend billions of pounds to fund its refurbishment, but for just a fraction of this cost we could be encouraging better political discourse online.

No one party can – or should – be responsible for this, and so we are calling for a cross-party allegiance to work with us and existing social media platforms to improve their offerings.

We want to see a purpose-built platform established to facilitate meaningful and effective political engagement online, and have written to all mainstream political parties asking them, once the dust has settled on the general election, to work with us and each other to address the issue.

Online political engagement is here to stay, and questions around how well it is serving our political process will only increase over time.

We now have the chance to get ahead; to give proper consideration to how the situation can be improved and make IT better for society.

Colin Marrs

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