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2 days ago

The power of policy-posting

The American XL Bully would never have been banned without Twitter.

By John Oxley

When the Prime Minister announced a ban on American XL Bully dogs last week, it appeared to be an immediate reaction to the death of a man in Staffordshire who was savaged by two of the dogs. But it was also the result of a broader campaign, which reveals something interesting about how policy is made in the UK.

The Staffordshire incident was by no means the first XL Bully attack. Since 2017 the breed has been responsible for at least 14 other deaths and many other injuries. In the last few months, however, the risk posed by the dogs has leapt up the political agenda, largely through prominent policy wonks raising the issue on Twitter. It’s an example of the posting-policy pipeline, a new dynamic in the way our government acts.

We may repeatedly be told that “Twitter is not the real world”, but it is an astonishingly effective way of influencing it. Journalists and politicians spend an awful lot of their time there – far more than the average user, who only looks at the site for four minutes a day. It is where they check the news, and where they see opinions formed. If everyone on the site is talking about something, it starts to look like everyone everywhere is talking about something.

This is a powerful tool for those who want to influence policy. Part of getting the government to do things you think are a good idea is about raising salience. It’s vital to get politicians to think that issues matter, both in the abstract and in the electoral marketplace. Creating a buzz online in the place they hang out is an effective way of doing so.

Sites like Twitter (and increasingly Substack) also allow a way around the usual gatekeepers of policy. There is no need to try to get a meeting with a minister or navigate the secretaries and researchers who try to fob you off if you can get your message straight onto the decision-maker’s phone. Equally, the concise nature of online communications means a powerful person is far more likely to read them than an 80-page research paper.

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The Bull XL phenomenon is now the clearest example of this pipeline in action. For several years, campaigners had been trying to get the breed banned but faced powerful opposition from entrenched lobbying actors, such as the RSPCA. This changed when the internet started talking about it more. Following a rise in attacks this year, various policy-adjacent people on Twitter – the types MPs follow and listen to – started talking more about banning the breed. This in turn led to journalists taking up the story, with the Economist, the Spectator, the conservative writer Ed West and tabloids calling for bans. Suddenly, after a summer of discussion and one regrettable attack, the Prime Minister took action.

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Another more critical example is around housing. The rise of “Yimby” campaigns online has pushed the issue of housebuilding reform much further up the political agenda. In the last year or two the drive to build more houses has reached a critical mass, moving from online spaces to being endorsed by major columnists. In the next election it is likely to be a key policy battle, with some of the ideas thrown out by policy nerds online likely to make it into manifestos.

Overall, this is little different from any other campaigning or lobbying. People want changes in laws and policies, so they put forward their arguments to people in power. It is more transparent than most forms – with the online advocates of policies presenting their case in the open, where it can easily be reviewed and critiqued. It does not rely on secret access or inside privileges, just catching the eye of those who make policy happen. Yet it also shows how a small number of people, with audiences and influence, can sway government policy.

Governments have tried to harness the internet to give people outside of Westminster more influence. The government petitions site is the most formal, but though it can prompt parliamentary debates, it has been little more than window dressing. Facebook and email have made MPs more responsive to constituents, but this is often more about casework than policy. Yet while MPs often try to play down the importance of Twitter, it is the place where they spend their time, along with policy people and journalists, which means it perhaps holds the most sway when it comes to enacting big changes.

Politicians have always been influenced by those close to them. Certain social circles have had a knack for framing the agenda. The posting-policy pipeline adds a new dimension to this. It partly brings it into the open – but also highlights how our politicians can be susceptible to the news and social media agenda. Today it is the XL Bully that feels the wrath of this. It will be interesting to see what subject comes next.

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