Twitter has become the latest arena of political debate and campaigning in the UK, breaking down barriers between politicians and voters. It also affords MPs a channel of communication over the head of spin doctors and the press.
Uptake by MPs was sluggish at first. Many politicians were initially fretful about the security of social media accounts and cognisant of the inherent risks of communicating in real-time online. Such has been the inexorable rise of Twitter, however, that MPs are now all but expected to be on it: more than 70 per cent of Britain’s 650 MPs have signed up (464 according to the Telegraph’s curated list).
While a few MPs delegate their bot-like accounts to their researchers to retweet bland praise or parrot propaganda tweeted by party HQ, many MPs take the helm themselves, and some take it very seriously indeed.
MP and President of the Lib Dems Tim Farron managed an astonishing 17,421 tweets last year (50 tweets a day, or one every twenty minutes on average), making him the most prolific British politician on the site.
In total UK MPs sent almost a million tweets last year, up 28 per cent on the previous year and an increase of more than 230 per cent from 2011. Ben Carson, head of product at social media monitoring service Yatterbox, commented in December: “The level of engagement by politicians on social media has exploded in the last two years… It is now beyond doubt that social media is a critical part of how an MP communicates with the outside world.”
Admittedly many MPs (especially those with hopes of promotion) take their lead from party headquarter Twitter feeds, and are vigilant about staying “on message” about party policies, mixing it up with the odd constituency selfie tweet to prove their commitment to their local voters.
But other politicians have exploited the ability to eschew the iron grip of their central party on messaging, by creating, and presiding over, this unique channel of communication.
Twitter has certainly proven an effective activism tool for smaller campaigns, useful not only for promoting a cause, but also publicising an MP's contribution to furthering it. Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy, the party’s most prolific tweeter, has tweeted tirelessly in support of her crusade against payday lenders. With almost 49,000 followers, her reach has sent the issue soaring up the agenda and allowed Creasy to become the face of the campaign against it.
In addition to its political function, it has boosted the personal image of many MPs, who have benefited from revealing shades of personality through their 140-character messages. Tweeting in an informal, speech-like way about traffic jams, weekend plans and hobbies reinforces their human side – no trivial thing in an era of low trust in politicians.
Some have even developed comic online personae. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory MP for Daventry, sends out a steady stream of one-liners into the ether. Recent gems include: “Do German vegetarians drive Volksvegans?” and “Bicycles can’t stand on their own because they are nearly always two tired”.
While personality plays a part in political tweeting, the most commonly tweeted about subjects by MPs remain “serious” political ones. The political occasions that racked up the most tweets last year were the announcements of the Budget and the Autumn Statement – with more than 5,000 tweets sent out by MPs about both events.
The informality of Twitter allows politicians to receive, as well as transmit, ideas too. Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, has gained a reputation for replying to constituents and debating online, for example, embodying a sense of direct democracy that is popular with voters.
With the freedom that the internet entails comes responsibility and some MPs run close to the line. In April, the Conservative party vice chair Michael Fabricant was sacked for tweeting about the party's besieged Culture Secretary: “Maria Miller has resigned. Well, about time.” It was the latest in a series of social media offerings from the mischievous MP that were viewed as less than helpful by CCHQ.
Fabricant had the last word though, using Twitter to broadcast the news of his political demise, tweeting: “Been asked to resign as Vice Chairman, refused, so sacked over HS2 and my views on a recent Cabinet Minister. Still available 4 speeches etc”.
He found himself mired in deeper controversy in June when he tweeted about leftwing journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown that he could not appear with her on television, or else “I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat.” A Twitterstorm of outrage ensued, in which Fabricant was derided as misogynistic.
Embarassing gaffes are also easy to make on Twitter. Labour MP Jack Dromey, husband of deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, elicited ridicule last November for “favouriting” a gay pornography website, which he claimed was a mistake. It emerged at the same time that the official No 10 Twitter account had followed an escort agency account, which officials blamed on an "auto-follow" facility that was employed up to 2009.
In recognition of the importance of Twitter for politicians, Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, has even launched a series of annual awards for the best, and the worst MPs on the site. The politicians’ ratings are based on how entertaining and informative they are, but also their engagement with constituents and the regularity with which they tweet.
Labour shadow health minister, Jamie Reed topped the survey last summer for retaining a sense of authencity and humour (rare for a frontbencher on Twitter), while Tory minister Brandon Lewis was crowned worst for the “self-regarding triviality” of his tweets.
As more politicians join Twitter and take enthusiastically to the medium, the impact of social media on our political process will continue to grow.