Politics and Technology – The Minefield of Social Media

Published in The Huffington Post on Friday, 6th January, 2012.

The furore over Diane Abbott’s reckless tweeting during the past 24 hours has once again thrust the relationship between politics and technology back into the spotlight.

Throughout modern history, innovations in the way that we communicate with each other have had a profound impact on way that politics is carried out. The emergence of the print media, the telegram, radio and television have all revolutionised the way that politicians operate.

Today, the internet and 24 hour news organisations mean they must always stay on message or risk finding themselves embroiled in controversy – as Diane Abbott, like many before her, has so spectacularly demonstrated.

This is in stark contrast to previous eras. In a time before the majority of households owned a television, Labour prime minister Clement Atlee was asked by journalists if he had anything to say to the nation as he returned from a foreign trip. As he stood on the runway his response was a stern “no.”

Imagine the reaction if this had come from David Cameron or Tony Blair. Atlee was a pre-eminent figure of the 20th century but the sad fact is that he would not have stood a chance in today’s media-centric political environment.

The emergence of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter have formed the latest chapter in the relationship between politics and technology. Politics became consumerised decades ago but technology has developed this further and helped bring about a deeper personalisation of politics – if only at a surface level.

If used appropriately politicians can now communicate more directly with their base and disseminate their message more effectively. A good example is Sarah Palin. With over four million combined followers, Palin has been able to use Twitter and particularly Facebook to hone her message, publicise her brand and dominate the headlines.

For all the good it can do, social media is a minefield for both seasoned and aspiring politicians. I’ve written previously about the pitfalls, especially for future generations. Websites store a wealth of data that could be embarrassing, such as images, people you are friends with and status updates. We’ve all got embarrassing photos that we’d rather forget (ask George Osborne or Aiden Burley) and these can easily come back to haunt us.

As far as Diane Abbott is concerned, she fell into the trap of becoming too comfortable using social media sites to pursue her own fame. She is no racist and there is no reason to believe she meant any harm or offense by her now infamous tweet.

Abbott is, however, gloriously indiscreet. The only surprise is that it has taken her so long to generate the mess she is now in.

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