Twitter, influence and politics

The British general election has finally produced a result after a relatively short period of negotiation and politicking. There is now a coalition in place between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats brought about by a hung parliament (note to non-British readers, yes, they call it that!).

This general election was billed at the start as a wired election where candidates would use social media to communicate their message to the public; it would be the coming of age of the digital engagement era, where sophisticated politicians will be able to connect with their voters in an easier manner. All candidates had Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds and used YouTube. So what is the verdict?

One thing that is clear is that social media is highly tribal, users tend to cluster together according to shared interests and political views. If my Twitter stream accurately described the political British voting patterns, then Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have obtained 99% of the votes combined, and the Tories would get only one or two seats. This is a common phenomenon that has already been described, but it is interesting to see it at work during an election. Another interesting fact is that Twitter is very different to other social networks. Facebook’s users are more networked, and therefore it is a more democratic environment. Twitter has a built-in hierarchical structure that truly changes the way in which people use it. On Twitter, your influence is measured immediately by the amount of followers you get. New users find it more difficult to “compete” with older users because they have already accumulated links. This means that those with more followers have a more important voice on Twitter.

This situation has created an interesting environment more akin to traditional media. Those who tweet the most are a small minority, while 90% are passive consumers (lurkers to use the old internet term). This means that Twitter is becoming an environment that favours fame and celebrity. If you manage to have lots of followers, then the advertising implications are astounding, as Conan O’Brian testifies in this interesting video.  Having said that, some of the most influential people I follow are not famous in the real world sense, but are influential in Twitter. That means, they have a large following, but most importantly, they are listed a lot and have many retweets.

The other important development taking place in Twitter is that for those connected, it has reduced pathways to influence. It is much easier to be “closer” to true influential people on Twitter, as once gets above a certain level, the number of intervening connections are much shorter than the traditional six degrees of separation. The reason for this is that the connectors, the super-hubs in a network, are likely to follow each other.

What does this mean for politics? It is a mixed bag. Because Twitter has not crossed a vital threshold in user numbers as Facebook has, its influence in overall electoral patterns is still small. However, what has changed is that most journalists, media outlets and politicians are using it, so it has created a small network of hyper-connected individuals that speak the same language. One only has to look at the success of Tom Watson MP to see a politician that is using the tool to his advantage.

So, Twitter will not decide elections (yet), but it may decide how people work together after the election.

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