30 March 2023
“A rotten sewer of opinion which is absolutely essential to everyday life.” That’s how one British Member of Parliament recently described social media to me. Provocative, to be sure, but lacking nuance.
British MPs’ use of social media has developed dramatically in recent years. Once users of social media solely for broadcast, MPs now use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms to engage directly with their main stakeholders: the media, their constituents and fellow MPs.
Last year, in support of a master’s degree in digital marketing, I undertook an exploration of why—and how—British MPs use social media, whether it really is essential for politics, and what that reveals about the current state of political discourse. Through semi-structured qualitative interviews, I spoke to eight experts including members of Parliament, special advisors (SpAds), former digital party heads and political journalists. Here’s what I found.
1. Twitter is better for party politics, while Facebook is better for constituency engagement.
Twitter was undoubtedly the platform of choice for politicians and political journalists. At time of writing, according to Politics Social, 590 British MPs are active on Twitter—over 90%—with nearly 1,000 tweets from MPs in the past 24 hours. Twitter emerged as the platform on which politicians were paid the most attention by fellow MPs and journalists, and activity was shown to directly influence the news agenda. MPs spoke of no longer sending press releases as a tweet would do the work for them. All MPs interviewed acknowledged that while they spent a lot of time on Twitter, it wasn’t where they reach their constituents online.
Facebook and Instagram were used far more for constituency engagement, with one politician saying nearly all of their casework requests now come in through social media rather than via email or handwritten letters. Because of this, Facebook and Instagram were found to typically be run by an MP’s team, while Twitter was more often than not run by MPs themselves.
A subtle finding from the research was that an MP’s opinion or intent often didn’t need a stand-alone tweet. While many would show support for a policy either by posting or retweeting, several journalists noted they had set up monitoring for less visible likes or new follows from MPs that might indicate something significant.
2. The abuse of politicians online is perhaps worse than we realized.
Every single interviewee brought up—unprompted—online abuse as a downside of social media. And while every interviewee spoke from personal experience, their own abuse was often downplayed when compared to the experiences of women and ethnic minorities. One MP said we’re likely to see more MPs leaving politics after a short period of time as “it’s not worth it.”
There emerged three main ways interviewees dealt with abuse: amplification, defense and blocking. Amplification saw one journalist retweet the abuse to their followers. Defense saw an MP responding to abuse, particularly if it referenced their partner. And finally, blocking, which most interviewees said they did on a regular basis. One MP told the tale of a constituent who was “lovely” to their face, but who became a nasty troll online.
Much of the extant literature also suggests this abuse is a gendered problem, with online sexist slurs and threats of rape haunting female politicians. To get beyond anecdotes and self-reporting, this problem ought to receive further and deeper study.
Ahead of the 2019 General Election, several female MPs stood down, with many citing the abuse they’d received. Women and ethnic minorities standing down from Parliament in the face of abuse makes Britain much more unlikely to receive diverse representation.
3. Social media may not win you an election, but it could cost you one.
Several interviewees suggested that social media had more of an impact on failing as a politician than on succeeding. A striking quote was from a former party head of digital who said that “social media can lose elections for you. It very rarely wins [them].” They spoke of comments being made in the heat of the moment that can later cause political harm—or old posts coming back to haunt an MP. One journalist suggested that social media only really had an impact for politicians if they’d made a terrible gaffe or been “an appalling wrong’un.”
That being said, as I explored whether social media impacted political success, it became clear that social media was now expected of politicians. One MP compared it to having a phone number or email, and said it was just something that needed to be done. Another said if you’re not on social media “it’s sometimes hard to break through and [be] heard.”
The consensus was that social media is not fundamental to political success, but findings also suggest that social media was effective for success within a party. An MP said that a tweet would make it more likely for other MPs to see posts and potentially help you get ahead. They referenced a tweet they had posted which was shared by several other MPs, broadening their reach. Another spoke of activity on social media being important to getting a promotion within a party.
Only one MP—an MP in a seat with a small majority—touted social media as the reason they won their seat, suggesting it tipped them over the line: “I think social was a key part of why I got my seat when others in my range of seats lost.”
4. MPs are becoming addicted.
Something often referenced in the interviews was the notion of MPs becoming increasingly obsessed—to the point of addiction—with social media. One MP spoke of seeing fellow MPs replying late at night to things and had to speak to them to suggest they learn to put their phones down. They said this was because MPs often look to Twitter as an example of how they’re doing or how their messaging is landing. An advisor took this further, saying many politicians “live in fear” of Twitter.
This was supported by an anecdote from a political journalist who detailed an occasion they were messaging an MP on Twitter while the MP was running a Select Committee. They suggested the MP was using Twitter to see how their performance in the Select Committee was being perceived online in real time, rather than paying attention to the proceedings themselves.
5. It’s not a level playing field.
Team size and budget were frequently mentioned: While cabinet members will have large teams and budgets, most MPs will have a team where the role of caseworker and content creator must be combined. This has led to a change in how MPs hire their support team, with one MP speaking of their team as “a content creation organization,” with curation and creation of content now a core skill and an integral part of any team member’s role.
As a result of greater scrutiny on their expenses, MPs are increasingly reluctant to spend money on equipment they might need to do their jobs. One MP said that they were desperate for a decent camera to support their social media content development, making it easier to communicate with constituents, but they were too concerned about the backlash around frivolous spending.
6. Social media is changing MP behavior.
Finally, with MPs so focused on social media and how they are perceived online, the fundamental finding from my research was that social media has led to a change in MP behavior. All MPs interviewed spoke of how online expectations are influencing offline behavior. One MP noted that younger, more tech-savvy colleagues tended to stand in one of a few places in the chamber as they weren’t obscured by the drop-down mics and would therefore have a cleaner shot for use on their social media channels later. Another noted that MPs were beginning to speak in soundbites and give shorter speeches because they were more likely to go viral on social media. As one MP put it, “One of the primary reasons now that I make a speech is to get the video, to share the video to people who are not watching the speech [on BBC Parliament].”
On why MPs use social media, one quote stuck with me:
“It enables a personal, unfiltered, unbiased, straight-to-consumer viewpoint. It enables you to talk directly without editorial interference or third-party opinion. It’s your own words in your own voice translated to the audience that you’re speaking to.”