social media twitter


Why bother having elections and votes in Parliament, when you can find out what the people want in real time, 24 hours a day, on social media?

No-one is seriously suggesting that the keys to Downing Street should be handed over to Facebook users. Or that the prime minister should be replaced by a Twitter feed, however tempting that might seem to some.

But the weird, and slightly scary, fact is that after years of overly-optimistic predictions about e-democracy, social media is now so freely available and widespread that it would probably work. In theory.

“Technologically it is now possible. We could function as a direct democracy,” Labour MP Kevin Brennan told a Hansard Society event at Westminster.

“The cost of obtaining people’s views on a range of different subjects is miniscule compared to any other time in history, unless you go back to ancient Greece when you just gathered in the market place and you could have a direct vote on things.”

But, argued the shadow education minister, it would be a truly terrible idea.

“Ultimately someone has got to take a decision. How comfortable would we be with a decision on capital punishment taken via a TV debate and a vote on Twitter?

“We have indirect democracy for a reason. When does crowdsourcing become mob rule?”

The whole point of representative democracy, of the kind practised for centuries at Westminster and in most Western democracies, is that it acts as a brake on “wild and irrational decisions”, he reasoned.

Irrational mob

But could social media be harnessed by politicians in a more modest way to help them form better policies?

The experts assembled by the Hansard Society, in a windowless conference room in an obscure corner of the Parliamentary estate, were divided on this one.

Britain Thinks polling chief Deborah Mattinson thought politicians should take advantage of the vast ocean of vaguely political chat sloshing around on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest. It might give them a better handle on what voters are feeling about their decisions (social media is particularly good at gauging emotion, the panel agreed).

Just as long as they don’t start mistaking it for public opinion.

“Social media is not a giant focus group and we shouldn’t confuse it with that, we shouldn’t think it is the same,” Ms Mattinson told the event.

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