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Social media: a force for good or evil?

MPs are just as hooked on social media as everyone else

By Prospect Team  

MPs are just as hooked on social media as everyone else, and that means a new and very direct channel of communication has opened up between government and governed. Is that a good thing, especially at a time when British politics has become so charged-up by Brexit? Prospect, in partnership with Vuelio, brought together a panel of experts at Conservative party conference to discuss that question.

Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport said that, “social media has changed the relationship between MPs, the constituents and the public.” “The ability to communicate has enormous positives,” she said, but “we all know about the negative, the abuse.” That negative side is, she said, driven in part by the “very febrile and volatile atmosphere,” in which we live. Social media can intensify the bad feeling.

“We have to remind ourselves that the whole of the public is not represented by Twitter,” she said. “It’s very possible to think everybody’s obsessed with an issue just because people are talking about it on Twitter.” It’s important to remember the “huge number of people in the middle who aren’t thinking about Brexit…” and who are worrying about other things. Social media bombast “drowns out the people who want to contact me to ask for my help.”

Damian Collins, chair of the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, described the “swirling noise of the social media landscape,” some of which, he said, was driven by “orchestrated networks of often fake accounts.” This upsurge of misleading and negative news, he said, was “coarsening the public debate,” and is “a threat to our democracy—and we should not accept it.”

The malicious creation of false information is highly damaging for the political process. “Citizens have to be informed in order to place their vote,” he said. Disinformation undermines this, and “citizens should be given tools to identify sources of unreliable information.” There should be cautions on unreliable sources, he said, especially now that half of people in this country get news via social media.

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital and Broadband, asked: “is it a problem with the social media or with the people who use it?” The prevalence of unsavoury comment and attitudes on social media, he said, suggested that some of the problems in Britain are not as solved as we thought. There is a need to tackle that issue, but he stressed the “huge free speech component around that. We need to be clear the majority of this is the nudging of public behavior rather than government seeking to regulate free speech.”

Marie Le Conte, the writer and journalist, set out what she termed “a pessimistic view of social media overall.” One reason for her scepticism was that “the influence of social media on politics is the death of recess.” With Twitter especially, MPs are arguing full time. “We do need MPs sometimes to log off,” she said. “Back bench MPs are not meant to have opinions on everything. Now hundreds of MPs talk about the opinions they have on every single topic.”

Kelly Scott, head of political and stakeholder strategy, Vuelio then set out the findings of a report commissioned from ComRes, the polling company. Research found that four in five MPs thought that public attitudes to MPs had become worse. Three quarters of them agreed that the public was finding it hard to get good information. On the positive side, almost half of MPs said social media improved transparency, while two in five said it had improved engagement with the public.

If transparency is so beneficial, perhaps all social media anonymity should be lifted. “My fear is there’s nothing to stop people making up contact details,” said Nicky Morgan. “I get plenty of messages from people who have made up email addresses, as the police tend to find.” Damian Collins recounted the social media company response to this suggestion: that there are freedom fighters in some countries who rely on anonymity to protect them from the state. Marie le Conte noted that anonymity can be good for marginalised people, like gay kids in homophobic families. Remove their anonymity and you remove something of value.

“There should be a regulator,” Damian Collins said, which led to the question of how a UK-based body could hope to influence companies such as Twitter or Facebook, both based in the US.

“The UK can’t write laws for the US,” said Matt Warman. “But if we get it right we will have a globally influential role.” And it is better these terms were set in the democratic west, rather than by China or Russia.

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