Introduction to political blogs and social media

A Working for an MP Guide
Introduction to Political Blogs and Social Media
First Published 7 May 2010 w4mp
Last Updated 30 January 2012 w4mp
Last Reviewed 1 January 2014 w4mp
Unamended version copied from old Guide

Richard Parsons, who writes about politics and technology at http://twitter.com/ePolitix/westminster-media.  And ePolitix.com also has other lists which provide useful information, such as MPs and peers who tweet, which can be found at http://twitter.com/ePolitix/lists.

These lists provide a good example of what Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes, describes as the ‘news stream’, the replacement of a single printed news story with a constant flow of news, updates, reaction and commentary.

This concept highlights some of the changes to the traditional world of politics which the internet has brought about. For example, it has widened the debate and allowed more voices to be heard. This greater diversity of views in turn produces a bigger challenge to anyone seeking to build or maintain a consensus on any issue. So while there are still a small number of dominant voices within the ‘Westminster village’, it is also undeniable that the discussion space is now more open to voices from outside.

This being the case, one of the most important points of social media is that it’s useful to go to where the conversation is already taking place, rather than expecting people to come to your website or blog or Facebook page.

So you should search out issues which affect your constituency, whether it’s a discussion about local maternity services on Mumsnet, or a Facebook group about a local school, or a website set up to oppose a council planning decision. Then, whether your MP agrees with the views being expressed, disagrees with them or wants to find out more background information, leave a comment and invite feedback.

Another vital source of information about activities in your constituency will be the local bloggers. A popular site can have almost as much influence as a local newspaper, so is worthy of attention.

Find out about the most important bloggers and add their RSS feeds to your ‘feed reader’ (free programs which alert you whenever something new is published on a website). If you notice a particular post generating a lot of comments from local people, highlight the discussion and suggest your MP takes part in it with a comment of his or her own.

Google’s blog search – found at http://blogsearch.google.co.uk  – is a good starting place for looking for local bloggers, and allows you to set up email alerts for key words or phrases such as the name of your MP or places in the constituency.

It is important to approach the ‘blogosphere’ with an open mind, for example the surprisingly extensive birminghamitsnotshit.co.uk publishes a long list of people who blog in or about the city.

You should also be aware of the pitfalls and clichés of political life that are easily highlighted by websites such ashttp://glumcouncillors.tumblr.com  or the @eyespymp service on Twitter.

A useful rule to follow in this area is to make sure you understand the blogger, their views and arguments before getting involved in protracted debate with them. By getting to know their long-standing interests, you will also hopefully avoid confusing in-jokes with serious posts, which would be an embarrassing mistake to make.

And as with any research done online, you will want to be cautious about relying on blogs for factual information if you are going to include it in Commons speeches. As always, double-checking is a sensible precaution.

But if you are quoting a blogger, do credit them in the speech. Few things will please a blogger more than having a passage from one of their posts quoted in Parliament. And this almost guarantees further pick-up and discussion of the speech in the blogosphere. If the blogger doesn’t realise you’ve quoted them, then send them an email to let them know. If quoting a blogger unfavourably, however, do remember that most will answer back.

While browsing blogs, also take time out to read the comments that have been left. These can also be a useful source of information, pointing out flaws in the blogger’s viewpoint or adding additional information to the story. As you will rapidly notice, some blogs attract a higher proportion of sensible comments than others. Get to know which ones are home to sensible discussion.

It is important to read the viewpoints that are expressed online, but you should also be aware of what you aren’t reading. Think about what perspectives are excluded, and what kind of people write blogs and post comments.

The Hansard Society’s 2010 Audit of Political Engagement reported that just two per cent of Britons have actually followed a political group or politician on Twitter, and only four per cent have done so on Facebook. And to emphasise quite what a minority interest politics is, just nine per cent have “expressed their political opinions online” in any forum at all.

While it is important to engage with the online audience – given that while it might be small, it is disproportionately noisy and influential – do not expect it to necessarily be representative of the constituency or the public as a whole.

Facebook does better than many in this regard, however, with over 23 million active users in the UK at the start of 2010. For example, it has over two million users aged over 50, and more than three million aged 40 to 49. It is also well balanced in terms of gender, with slightly more women than men using the service.

So effective use of the internet – its tools, social media services and blogs – can help you ensure your MP stays abreast of what happens both in Westminster and in the constituency.

But above all, as numerous politicians have now found out, remember the golden rule of blogging, tweeting or posting comments of any kind: What goes on the web stays on the web. So never post anything anywhere that you wouldn’t be happy to see on the front page of a national newspaper.

Top tips

  • Do read widely
  • Don’t quote without attribution
  • Do understand the blogger
  • Don’t publish anything without thinking
  • Do look at reader comments
  • Don’t rely on blogs for facts
  • Do think about the voices not heard

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