For the third time, I failed to persuade Chris Mullin, who would be brilliant if he embraced it, to join Twitter last night.
As fellow diarists of the New Labour era, we seem to have become a fairly regular double act and this time he was interviewing me at Chatham House about the influence of social media on global politics, which I consider to be significant, and broadly positive. But even after my third attempt, and even after my article in yesterday’s Times setting out a few facts on the growth of social media, and a few observations about its potential for good in the public debate, he was unbudgeable beyond the idea that it was shortening attention spans, giving too much profile to people like Louise Mensch, and minimising the possibility of serious figures emerging.
When he called in a young man called Solomon, who was monitoring questions coming in via twitter, to read some of them out ‘to show we are modern I suppose,’ he did so with the worldweary sigh of a man who felt that modern did not mean good. I tried again to say he would enjoy it, he would be good at it, he would reach more people with his views and arguments, sell more books, change more minds, engage more people in the political debate. He was unimpressed … ‘What if I just want to spend more time growing my vegetables?’ I would not give up … ‘That’s fine. Tweet as @vegetablegrower,’ but he was having none of it.
Our discussion, and the q and a, were streamed by Chatham House and, somewhat alarmingly given I wasn’t overly watching my Ps and Qs, a woman from the Parliament Channel came up to me at the end and asked if I was aware they were planning to run the whole thing on there. I am now.
The best question came from a young man who asked which Party in my view had adapted best to the advent of social media and if it was not clear, why not? I replied that I felt none of our parties had adapted as well as the American parties had, and that whoever did so by the next election would have a competitive advantage.
Anyway enough for now … perhaps the subject will come up on This Week tonight when I join pro-Twitter Andrew Neil and anti-Twitter Michael Portillo, who is very much in the Mullin camp, to discuss Scottish independence, Jimmy Savile and presumably after David Cameron’s latest omnishambles, the government’s ‘energy policy’ (sic).
Meanwhile, a day after it went behind the Times paywall, for those who didn’t see it, here is the piece I did for The Times.
‘When the media declared that Mitt Romney “won” the first TV debate with President Obama, they were relying not only on their own judgment, but on that of 10.3 million tweets posted during the 90-minute joust. That was a Twitter record for a political event. Indeed, even in the 24 hours prior to the debate, there were more tweets than were gathered for all three presidential debates in 2008.
The speed of change is breathtaking. Facebook, founded in 2004, recently recorded its one billionth devotee. YouTube, created in 2005, now has more videos uploaded in one month than three US TV networks created in 60 years. Twitter, launched in 2006, has more than 500 million users, with around 300,000 joining every day. The number of British people on Twitter — 10 million — has overtaken the number buying a daily newspaper. Two thirds of the world’s top companies, and seven out of ten governments, have an active Twitter profile.
Much was made of the Democrats’ use of Facebook in 2008. A rather effective PR line suggested that it allowed Mr Obama’s fundraising to be built on small donations. In truth the big money came from big moneyed interests. But where the campaign did use Facebook brilliantly was in identifying supporters and turning them into activist ambassadors.
In an era when people believe politicians and journalists less than they used to, they still believe each other. And therein lies the power of social media as a political force — a tech version of old-fashioned word-of-mouth campaigning.
Many politicians fear social media. “How can you say anything in 140 characters?” is still their defensive response to Twitter (overlooking the fact that you can link to films, adverts, speeches or rebuttals). What they really fear is losing control. To embrace social media is to understand that there is no longer such a thing as total control of the message. That feels like a threat, but it is one replete with opportunity.
What it means for the politician, the campaign, the brand, is that they can only control what they do and what they say. Nobody — not they, their opponents or the old media — controls how the message lands, because social media gives individuals the opportunity to shape their own media landscape according to their lives and interests. What that offers the politician is the opportunity to communicate directly, without having to rely on elites or the old media. That is both emancipating and democratic.
In the past, if your issue was the lead story in two or three newspapers, you could pretty much guarantee leading the TV news and “setting the agenda”. Today, the agenda changes by the hour, often with a big gap between what the media deem newsworthy and what the public decide is “most viewed” or “most read”.
David Cameron, a late and reluctant convert to Twitter, continues to think he should be visible — namely on TV — across every issue. On the contrary, he should be setting his own agenda, on his own terms. Successful communication becomes strategic, not tactical, depending on a consistent, authentic message that speaks to core values and policies over time. It does not have the Prime Minister popping up on the news every night to speak on his latest “top priority” in which “I passionately believe”.
Though Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, is active on Twitter, he only has 27,000 followers, perhaps because to date his tweets are little more than an extension of his press office. But having won the right for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the independence referendum — a group for whom newspapers and fixed-time TV news are alien concepts — social media could become a crucial factor in his campaign.
Looking back, it seems remarkable that the changes we made to modernise communications when Labour won the 1997 election caused such controversy. Media monitoring, rapid rebuttal, message discipline and grids — these are now a basic part of any major organisation’s operations. As for the lobby briefings – we caused controversy by putting them on the record and inviting in foreign media. Today the issue is whether they are needed at all when politicians are more accessible and news channels so instant.
We had to adapt to a mainstream media that was becoming bigger, noisier and more negative. Today governments are having to adapt to far greater changes driven by technology and the personalisation of communications. If they don’t, the results can be seismic. As the Arab Spring reached its zenith, governments that failed to adapt, to meet the needs volubly expressed in protests organised and ventilated via social networks, were overthrown. Some of their successors fear they may succumb to the same fate, and now seek advice — not because they want to, but because they have to. The Chinese continue to try to control input and output, but even they find it impossible to shut down all the networks all of the time.
There is an inescapable momentum behind the flow of political power to individuals and movements, which recognises no national boundaries. For politicians in democracies this should be a cause of celebration, not fear. These are the same people that they meet on the fabled doorstep, except now they can meet thousands all at once. But they must understand that the only voice they can control is their own, and they must be prepared for the voters’ response to echo across the digital world.’