New tools in politics – thoughts on social media and politics

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’.


10 Comments Posted

  1. Israeli activist Uri Avnery commented on these tools recently, with regard to Egypt (quoted by Robert Fisk in the Independent):

    “These are the faults of a generation brought up on the ‘social media’, the immediacy of the internet, the effortlessness of instant mass communication,”

    “These fostered a sense of empowerment without effort, of the ability to change things without the arduous process of mass-organisation, political power-building, of ideology, of leadership, of parties.” So when Egyptians suddenly enjoyed fair elections, “this whole amorphous mass of young people were faced with a force that had all they themselves lacked: organisation, discipline, ideology, leadership, experience, cohesion – the Muslim Brotherhood”.

  2. Perhaps the greatest tool that the internet, and the data available to be utilised by ALL people, provides is a check that what politicians claim to be gospel can actually be independently verified.

    Not long ago we had the very same Gareth Hughes making claims that research showed fracking caused distant earthquakes.

    However some online delving and digging revealed his sources were false and misleading.

    Creating a myth to mislead people is much much harder to achieve thanks to the power of the internet and the data contained thereon.

    Politicians just have to be 100% truthful, for the facts are easily checked.

  3. I guess if these tools were really nmaking politics “a better place” we’d be seeing some results. Actually, politicians seem more and more distant from the public, many of whom have disengaged all together. Last year I was working in a low socio-economic area, and a good half of the locals I was working with didn’t even have an e-mail address. Social media isn’t going to be getting to those people easily.

    It seems to me that there are those who like these new electronic tools, are comfortable in that world, and consequently, like to argue for their supposed benefits. Doesn’t really have much to do with their actual impacts.

  4. That figures – I went to a discussion some time ago about the internet in a maori cultural context and there was some discussion about the need for an ‘electronic mihi’ to build trust and knowledge of wherre the speaker/writer is coming from before getting down to the mattter under discussion. The potential for anonymity on the net does break down communication considerably.

  5. Sam – interestingly I recently put forward an ICT paper on this very subject as part of my MBA.

    The literature suggests that while people are more connected by modern technologies and (narrowly) technically more productive in terms of raw outputs, the quality of human interaction has degraded mostly as a result of technology not being able to address non-verbal communication which is the key element of forming the subjective trust relationship.

  6. Agree that it depends on the meaning of ‘engaged’ – I’d say that clicking ‘like’ isn’t engagement in any real sense of the term. But even if we just consider ‘connectedness’ rather than actual engagement – are people more connected than they used to be – or are they just changing the means by which they are connected?

  7. I can’t see any evidence that people are more, or better, engaged in politics than in the days before the internet, twitter etc. in fact, quite the reverse.

    Depends what you mean by engaged. I think as a channel, social media has been demonstrated to be incredibly useful in connecting with – if not necessarily galvanising or informing – the target audience.

    So if SM is treated broadly as a marketing channel (which is in fact its purpose) and not as a digital soapbox where The Big Issues are debated, then it is definitely effective.

  8. I’ve heard a lot of rants about the liberatory power of electronic media over the last 15 or more years, and frankly, I think its all a load of tosh. I can’t see any evidence that people are more, or better, engaged in politics than in the days before the internet, twitter etc. in fact, quite the reverse.

    The new technologies seem to have increased the dumbing down of politics to the soundbite, the ‘meme’ (AKA ‘slogan’) and the quip, and increased the gulf between the influence of the professional politician or well-resourced professional lobbyist – backed by an IT team – and that of the grassroots activist or ‘man (sic) on the Island Bay bus’.

    Referring to the bad old days of the “radio and TV age of politics” shows an ignorance of the degree to which old fashioned politics depended on much more accesible media – the newspaper, the leaflet, the poster, the public meeting, the rally, debates and public speaking etc.

    Rather than increase the two-way traffic between MPs and constituents, the new media seems to have made face-to-face contact, and any real need to engage, all but unnecessary. It’s much easier to win out through clever marketing and tricks when there’s an electronic buffer zone between you and the people.

  9. Agreed Tony.

    However, a well utilised social media channel is an excellent mechanism for reaching the most politically non-engaged part of the electorate; the 18-25 yo demographic.

  10. “new technologies are changing the climate of politics and helping make it a better place”

    Well, I suppose it could hardly get any worse.

    The Internet is certainly a medium for communication but it isn’t the only one. Please note that there are many people who don’t engage in social media trivia (or only use it fleetingly) so don’t put all your eggs into one basket.

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