Gareth Hughes

New tools in politics – thoughts on social media and politics

by Gareth Hughes

Politics has been around for thousands of years but new technologies are changing the climate of politics and helping make it a better place. As a young MP, I’ve embraced digital tools as part of my work and I‘m privileged to have a front-row seat in how it’s affecting politics. Just this afternoon I hosted possibly the first ever live-streamed Trans-Tasman online hangout with Western Australian Senator Scott Ludlum to talk tech issues and that got me thinking how these tools are changing the role of an MP.

Digital tools offer a tremendous opportunity to really and genuinely engage with citizens, as well as to reflect their visions, wishes and desires better. I figure politicians have always been where the people are, from the agora, temple or the market place, and in 2013 it’s clear the people are online and that’s where MPs should be too.

Too often though, MPs just think setting up a Twitter account is all they have to do. Once I had an MP come up to me and say, “What do I do, all these people who want to be my friend on Facebook? I don’t even know them!” When you look at many of our politicians on Twitter, it’s simply an extension of the debating chamber with its petty point scoring and pointless partisan politics… though maybe with a bit more humour. Others simply use it as a one-way broadcast channel and don’t use it to engage.

I think it’s actually more than that. It’s a way to reimagine the work we do and our relationships with the people we’re representing. It’s a chance for a real conversation, to float ideas, hear feedback and promote positive solutions.

Parliament and the media’s news cycle is a pretty negative, where conflict, name-calling and scandal always lead. To be an effective MP, particularly an opposition one, demands you engage with the media on those terms. It’s worrying because if you look at my recent press releases you may get the sense I am a pretty negative guy, complaining about this and that. Actually, I’m a pretty positive, optimistic guy who got into politics because I had ideas I wanted to share and a vision for New Zealand I wanted to promote. Sure, people want an effective opposition holding the government to account, but they also don’t want constant grinding negativity. They want to vote for a positive vision. New digital tools like social media platforms allow an unmediated communication platform where I can share my positive ideas and vision.

In the radio and TV age of politics, broadcasting was an expensive and dominated by influential gate-keepers. These days, the Internet is liberating communication channels. I’ve used this ability as much as I can: posting regular short videos, doing AMAs (Ask me Anything sessions), hosting online public meetings, crowd-sourcing ideas, designing games to promote policies, even launching policies on Reddit. It allows me to widely and cheaply get ideas out, broadening public discussion. It’s even changing policy formation. Previously, a party behind closed doors would research, decide and then launch policy. Now the Greens have adopted a ‘green paper’ concept where we pose ideas like a second Internet cable or electricity market reform for public feedback before going down the policy path. I think better decision-making is a result because there is truth in the old saying ‘there is wisdom in crowds.’

MPs’ tech knowledge however is woefully low, and sometimes embarrassingly so as we saw in the ‘Skynet’ copyright debate. I’ve been actively working with colleagues across the House on organising a series of seminars on topical Internet issues to help MPs access this information and it’s fantastic to see the ‘Adopt an MP’ initiative arise out of the 2013 Internet NZ Nethui conference, where geeks can ‘adopt an MP’ and be a friendly source of tech help and information.

I think the trends are going to keep accelerating and I hope more MPs can take advantage of these new tools and maybe even stop acting like old tools on the ‘Intwerwebs’.


Published in Environment & Resource Management by Gareth Hughes on Wed, August 28th, 2013   

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