Are ‘most influential’ Twitter lists sexist?

If rankings arbitrarily pass over women, they are meaningless.

Twitter is full of funny, interesting women. In fact, 40m more women than men use the site in a month, as shown in this attractive infographic from Information is Beautiful

Caitlin Moran, herself a voracious and brilliant doyenne of the Twittersphere, spent a whole paragraph of the acknowledgements in her book thanking ‘The Women of Twitter’ and ‘The Honorary Women of Twitter’ for reminding her that “funny women with a well-informed point are a dime-a-dozen”.

Why, then, do the lists that magazines, newspapers and PR firms put out from time to time fail to reflect this? The latest Foreign Policy magazine is a case in point. They have just released their FP Twitterati of 2012. Of their top 100, just nine are women. Billed as ‘A who’s who of the foreign-policy Twitterverse in 2012’, they haven’t shared their selection criteria in any particular detail, beyond simply saying that these are the feeds “you need to follow to make sense of it all”.

(An enterprising individual has set up a document where you can add the Twitter handles of female foreign policy tweeters who contributors feel should have been considered.)

The Portland NewsTweeters list, which the Westminster village tends to get itself in a flap about, is another good example. Slightly better than FP, they manage nine women out of fifty.

The Independent’s ‘Twitter 100’ list from earlier this year says that it “measures quality as well as quantity”, and unlike others, does at least provide a brief account of the methodology used to compile the list - they used a combination of PeerIndex ratings and a panel of experts. Eighteen of the hundred are women. By their own measure, I can think of five women right now who would have had a strong case for inclusion: the BBC’s Clare Balding (PeerIndex of 60) and Carolyn Quinn (52), the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis (63), The Independent’s own Jane Merrick (57) and Grace Dent (59). I’m sure I could keep going for quite a while, which leads to the question – on what grounds were all of them rejected by this panel of experts?

The Indy sum up their criteria as the three As: authority, audience and activity. How likely are they to tweet things that others want to share or comment on? How many followers do they have and how do they interact with them? How much do they tweet? These are the things, The Independent says, help distinguish an influential tweeter from someone who just has a large, yet inert, fanbase.

So are these lists merely reflecting the under-representation of women in public life, or is there something else going on? From what I can tell, the likes of PeerIndex and Klout aren’t even true measures of someone’s social media influence. According to this research, the more different providers try to measure influence, the harder it gets to do with any degree of accuracy. In addition, existing indices apparently tweak their algorithms a lot anyway. It’s also a bit of an echo chamber up there – the higher your score, the more likely you are to interact with other people with high scores, and the higher your score gets.

As Kira Cochrane said in her excellent investigation last year into the shocking lack of female bylines in British newspapers, blunt measurements (such as these lists) aren’t necessarily a definitive account of the gender balance.

They do, however, speak to the laziness and inherent bias of the people compiling the lists. Of course there are women with huge Twitter followings out there who are leading the charge and get selected for this kind of thing, and that’s all to the good. But until the compilers are prepared to look a bit further, to the vast numbers of women who are reading, writing, thinking and tweeting just like their male counterparts, these lists aren’t going to reflect what’s actually going on. And if they don’t do that, what’s the point of them?

We love to mess with the bird.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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