Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Social Media Summit - March 10th 2010 - Event Review - #LewisSMS

I attended an interesting event last night hosted by Lewis PR and which focused on social media and its effect on politics.

The event was hosted by Paul Evans, a blogger and local democracy freelance journalist. The panel were Conservative Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt MP, former Labour minister Tom Watson MP, Deputy Political Editor of the Evening Standard Paul Waugh who is also a prolific blogger and Dan Burton from

Dan Burton started by giving us a summary of how social media has helped in the US. He gave us an example of the success of a website called which allowed people to propose and vote for policies during the Obama transition which was very successful in a very short space of time getting millions of hits which became well known largely virally. He also explained about the service cloud which was launched 6 months ago and allows companies to keep track of when customers have had problems and have complained about them on social media to ensure they respond. I have seen a few times on Twitter that people have mentioned how e.g. Vodafone have got in touch with them to help resolve a problem they have tweeted about so this sort of thing is clearly being used. He rounded off by suggesting that electoral victory is not assured by the use of social media but defeat is assured without it.

Paul Waugh said that he has been blogging for about 18 months and he now regularly gets tip-offs about stories fed to him by tweeters and bloggers. He loves social media and is pleased that it is starting to blow apart the cosy lobby consensus. He also suggested though that although blogging and tweeting can shed some light on political reporting there are limitations for the general election. He gave the example of the Alan Duncan "we are treated like shit" comments which were recorded and published online and were around for about 3 weeks before they were drawn to the attention of the Evening Standard at which point they splashed it on the front page. After that, David Cameron eventually sacked Duncan from the front bench but Paul's point was that the momentum only got behind the story when the mainstream media got involved. He also suggested that the Guardian crowdsourcing for MPs expenses did not turn up anything interesting in contrast with The Telegraph research which turned up loads of stuff. As an aside though I think that the fact that The Telegraph had the info first and had already spent weeks trawling through it might have something to do with this! Paul rounded off by highlighting how compressed the news cycle is now with stories trending and disappearing within the same day sometimes.

Jeremy Hunt suggested that the expenses scandal has set the tone for how social media will interact with politics. He told an anecdote about how just after the scandal broke he got out of a taxi by the House of Commons and the driver, obviously sussing that he was an MP gave him two receipts. He was pleased to have this as an amusing story and he blogged about it but then one of his constituents got in touch demanding to know why he was getting a taxi rather than the tube! He thinks that social media ultimately makes MPs more accountable. I think this is true to an extent as long as they engage with their readers and followers. Too many MPs at the moment seem to be on transmit. He made the very valid point that lots of people who get in touch with MPs know more about the subject they want to discuss than the MP does. I suspect it was ever thus although the loss of deference probably highlights this more and more nowadays. Jeremy also suggested that although the Conservatives have been ahead in terms of social media, the other parties are now catching up. He does however think that in the election campaign, whilst social media will have some impact, the TV debates will have much more impact. He rounded off by saying that the biggest effect that social media could have would be at the local level rather than nationally. He highlighted the example of Grant Shapps who now has the e-mail addresses of one quarter of the voters in his constituency and how powerful this is.

Tom Watson thinks that social media allows you to "do what you love". He agreed with Jeremy that the TV debates will have more effect than social media. However he thinks that the new technology will draw new people into the political process. He explained how after seeing how his colleague Keith Vaz MP was responding to new computer games, he set up a new campaigning group on Facebook for gamers which quickly got 15,000 people involved. He also suggested that online fundraising could be the way to fund parties in the future with a little bit coming from a lot of people rather than the other way around as it is at the moment. In a quick panel love-in he took some time out to specifically praise Jeremy for how well he has engaged with the new technology and how there will be a whole raft of new MPs from all parties who are tech savvy. He said that social media will help to dilute spin. He rounded off by suggesting that eventually online campaigning will kill off billboard advertising.

After that it was open to questions from the floor. I tackled Paul about his comments regarding stories not gaining traction without MSM backing highlighting the example of the response to the Jan Moir Stephen Gateley story. As far as I can tell that was entirely generated by people online, mainly on Twitter and in the blogs. Although the MSM did eventually pick up on the reaction it was largely an adjunct to what was happening online with Jan Moir trending on Twitter (not in a good way) and 25,000 people complaining to the Press Complaints Commission. Paul agreed that this was an example of the online world leading the way.

A few other points I noted made during the Q&A session:

- Paul said that social media leaves journlalists and politicians with lots of different media streams to wade through every day. He also said that he feels that he has to blog 4 times per day in order to remain credible. This particular point seemed to cause some consternation on the Twitterfall projected on the wall behind the panel with a number of people questioning this.

- Jeremy pointed out that blogging as a front-bencher is a "nightmare" because of collective responsibility because blogging needs to be about authenticity and if all you do it parrot the party line then this is impossible to achieve.

- Tom Watson said that the hardest thing for a minister to do is to cut through all the communication that they recieve and actually take some time to think through a particular issue and what they are doing!

There were some interesting insights into how journalists and politicians are using the new media. I expect there will be lots more of these sort of events as we continue to find the technology growing in its usefulness. Indeed I am attending another one as a member of the panel this morning!


Jamie said...

Thanks for this summary of the event. I came across the hashtag on Twitter and had no idea what on earth it was all about. A very readable and comprehensive summary in an area that I have a lot of interest.

Mick Anderson said...

Jeremy Hunt is my MP. Last time I tried to use his website, it didn't work properly, and when I tried to contribute to his blog I discovered that anything other than a toadying comment was not likely to be published for long.

Unfortunately, as he "represents" a Tory safe seat, we're probably stuck with him. He certainly can't count on my worthless vote.