Twitter: society’s new dial tone

A screen capture of twitter on a website

This blog post first appeared on the Media and Government site.

The Institute for Government is hosting a panel debate on ‘Policy by Twitter’ today  with Tom Watson, Tim Montgomerie, Alberto Nardelli  and David Babbs, chaired by Jill Rutter. It is part of the Media and Government series in collaboration with Fishburn Hedges.

Online engagement may have bigger implications for politics than many commentators, journalists and politicians have yet realized.  The generic description ‘new media’ could lead to a false sense that little has changed by implying that facebook, twitter and blogs are just a faster, less professional version of the ‘old media’. But perhaps they are the early signs of a form of social engagement which is qualitatively different from old media, in ways with important implications for government and policymakers.

Consider the demise of the News of the World. The paper was not killed by competition from new media: it brought itself down by a failure of journalistic integrity, and by management which either did not know or did not care how journalists were getting their scoops.  In the past this might have been a survivable incident: it would merely have joined a long litany of press misjudgments, alongside the Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, Piers Morgan’s anti-German Mirror headline and the Daily Mail’s support for Hitler and Mussolini.  But this time the error was terminal for the News of the World. What has changed?

The collapse of the News of the World is partly the result of a new understanding by British politicians that their political future no longer depends on the patronage of Rupert Murdoch. David Cameron and Ed Milliband realized that they not only could but should disown their relationships with him – an act which would have been considered political suicide only a few years before.  And it was not just that the stranglehold of newspaper proprietors over politicians had been relaxed. The final nail in the coffin for the News of the World was a short campaign on twitter which persuaded companies to withhold their advertising from Britain’s biggest highest-circulation newspaper.

This suggests that new media is not just a faster and 24 hour news channel. The political economy of media is changing in three important ways.

First, the economics of media are changing in a way which could shift political power.  The old media required expensive equipment for printing presses and broadcasting studios, and income from advertising revenues or governments to cover significant running costs. Wealthy individuals and business provided the capital for old media, and often subsidized loss-making newspapers. The wealthy owners acquired political influence through their ownership of limited means of mass communication. By contrast, new media requires no capital. From Mumsnet to the Huffington Post, everyone now has the tools of mass communication in their hands, irrespective of wealth. The decision of British politicians to ostracize News International appears to be an unconscious recognition of a new world in which wealth no longer buys control of mass communication, and so buys less political power too.  If so, this will have significant implications for the way that policy is made in future.

Second, the new media is a conversation not a broadcast. This is more than a difference in form: it is a difference in attitude and meaning. For digital natives the impact of the internet on media is analogous to the impact of the enlightenment on science: the authority of a message is not derived from the position of the person from whom it comes, but from it being exposed to human interaction, review and scrutiny. Digital natives increasingly do not rely on a newspaper editor to curate news stories, but on their extended social network which guides them to interesting news and commentary.  They expect articles to be followed by user comments, which draw attention to errors of fact and weaknesses in reasoning.  This combination of social filtering and the wisdom of crowds draws good content to the surface in a way which is both more reliable and more democratic than the old media.  The government is at risk of treating new media as if it were a new way to transmit information to the public, without being willing (or knowing how) to engage in the conversation which for digital natives is the essence of its legitimacy.

Third, digital citizens engage in a long tail of conversations.  Chris Anderson explained in 2004 how online businesses such as Amazon and Netflix make money by selling a large number of distinct items in relatively small quantities to consumers with specific interests. For bricks-and-mortar stores the costs of distribution and inventory made it impossible to serve this ‘long tail’ of niche interests.  Similarly old media, with high marginal costs, has only ever been able to serve a narrow range of topics which they deem to be of wide appeal. This has led to a conceit that they are the centre of the ‘national conversation’, as if popular interests were normally distributed along a bell curve and they were able to serve people within one or two standard deviations of the typical citizen. But the public’s appetite for engagement is not normally distributed: it follows a power law (or ‘long tail’) distribution.  With zero distributional costs, new media can serve small groups of people with deep interests in niche topics in a way that old media never could.

These three characteristics of new media – low capital needs, a culture of engagement and the long tail distribution – could have profound implications for policy making and especially the way that the government interacts with citizens.  The public will increasingly expect to have a conversation with government, not a one-way transmission of information. They will be less inclined to accept the authority of pronouncements from the government, unless they are confident that it can be the subject of detailed scrutiny. They will expect engagement on a wide range of topics previously regarded as of interest only to a limited few, not a focus on a single issue of the day.

This could bring about considerable changes in the way policy is made and communicated. For example:

a. The government will have to become accustomed to publishing all the data it holds, and the analysis which underlies its policy choices, to enable calculations to be reproduced and judgments scrutinized.  The public will be less and less inclined to take the government’s word for it. (Examples: OBR, ICAI)

b. Social media strategies will have to mean more than employing someone in the press office to post press releases online and link to them on twitter; government departments will have to become part of the online conversation. (FCO Ambassador blogging is moving in this direction).

c. The long tail of public interests means that most public communication can no longer be channeled through ministers and press offices. Guidelines requiring officials to refer all enquiries to the press office will need to give way to new rules which allow technical experts across the range of subjects to engage directly with citizens, in the way they have in the past through meetings with lobby groups.

d. The erosion of the political power of media proprietors may democratize policy-making to a broader cross section of society. It will be harder to sew up a consensus among the political classes.

None of this means, of course, that government will make policy or have conversations with the public in 140 character tweets.  Twitter is merely the dial tone of new media.  It is the background hum which confirms you that you are online. It is increasingly the gateway to interesting content and conversations.  Policy by new media – including Twitter – could look very different from today’s world.

4 thoughts on “Twitter: society’s new dial tone”

  1. Re: “It will be harder to sew up a consensus among the political classes.”

    One of the problems that comes with successful development based upon open market principles is that its material success allows for the greater scope of both psychological and financial rent-seeking opportunities. By psychological I mean subscribing to values and beliefs antithetical to the foundations of a market economy.

    By luck more than planning, both Canada and the UK have benefited from a parliamentary democracy using a first past the post system that forces politicians to reach across the community divides at the grass-roots level in order to build up their numbers and get elected. Such a system of governance has been more successful than others in providing encompassing public goods and combating predation by limited interests.

    The ‘new media’ has given more power to limited interests and based upon the human propensity to validate rather than challenge deeply held beliefs, has created a cacophony of parallel conversations rather than dialogue. Limited interests and this includes some NGOs, have subsequently tailored their PR to reinforce existing beliefs and their bases for support rather than seeking any community-wide consensus. This has made the job of political bridge-building much more difficult.

    Subsequent to this is the ongoing challenge in Canada and the UK to the principles of parliamentary democracy under first past the post in favour of proportional representation or a version thereof. The later institutionalises the presence of limited interests and makes it more difficult for government to provide encompassing public goods.

    One reason Canada has been reasonably successful in avoiding the worst excesses of the global financial crisis is because its parliamentary system of government was able to override limited interests. This will also be why, the UK will be more successful in dealing with its crisis than other parts of the EU such as Greece, whose political institutions provide more scope for limited interests.

  2. @Dan

    Can’t speak for the UK, but what you describe as “reaching across community divides at the grass-roots level to build up their numbers and get elected” seems to me as very wrong, in terms of Canada’s electoral system. To a very limited extent, some of the parties do this during campaign time, but none of them have when it comes to actually running the country. And I do mean limited: I think the reverse effect of people voting for their least disagreeable choice has a far greater effect, which you are misconstruing as their chosen party “reaching out” to them. Canada’s political engagement is abysmal, and plummeting, and I blame FPTP for some of that.

    Rather than reaching out to people, during the last federal election here I saw parties actively (if not explicitly) discouraging people from voting. Old people are predictable and will vote regardless, but that’s not true of young people.

    I don’t understand the connection between FPTP and stability during the financial crisis. Can you explain some more? The USA shares some FPTP characteristics with their electoral college, but they didn’t do so well.

  3. @Philip

    Like any other system FPTP has its advantages and disadvantages; it is very demanding in that it requires before its institution, a market economy founded upon the open merit principal, a sense of civic rather than tribal nationalism, a social culture that enhances public duty combined with empathic skills, a minimum of three political parties (two encompassing big tent operations to alternate power and a third to keep the first two honest and step in should either falter) and an open merit based bureaucracy to administer public goods.

    When government provides public goods, such as property rights, there is a problem: if government is given the power to invest in and protect property rights as a public good, then it also has the power to take it away. FPTP, through its electoral multiplier effect tends to give government majority power to provide public goods; that same multiplier effect will punish government absolutely if it does not do so. The later effect makes FPTP very effective in combating limited interests, overturning state capture and overall keeping incumbency rates lower than under the other systems.

    My point in all this, is that an FPTP based system of government has the greater wherewithal of overriding limited interests whose steady accumulation of entitlements exaggerate any crisis, then the other systems. Hence my argument that the UK in the long run has the more effective form of government than the other EU countries for working through the current financial mess.

  4. @Dan
    Your view of FPTP depends on your ideas of democracy.
    FPTP gives you a binary choice – A or B
    Generally speaking, if you don’t want to vote for A or B, your vote is wasted.
    This contributes greatly to a sense of disillusionment with politics.
    Other factors are safe seats where MPs are in effect appointed to parliament by the party, and elections that are decided by a few votes in marginal constituencies.

    If, despite the system, opinion is divided equally between three parties, FPTP does not cope well.

    What is democratic about an electoral multiplier effect, especially when we are talking about a system that can hand government to a party that does not get the most votes?

    Erratically or alternately selected government is no substitute for democracy.

    The good things about FPTP are the single member constituency MPs and the simple voting and counting. We should keep these aspects but introduce a more proportional system where every vote makes a difference. Democracy is more important than any policy outcome.

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