The way that many of us live our lives online nowadays is naturally spilling over into the way people engage with politics and with politicians. Accompanying the rise of online campaigns, e-petitions and political memes, the internet and social media specifically is shifting the ways in which citizens engage with their elected representatives.
This shift is as fundamental as the one that came with the advent of radio or television. Huge numbers of citizens have taken to social media platforms to communicate with their local MPs, but with wildly varying levels of success. Some MPs try to avoid digital communications altogether. Others struggle to manage the immense volume of direct public engagement made possible by social media channels. Many receive daily abuse or even death threats online.
Soon after being re-elected in June, Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena let his constituents know he would not be using Twitter anymore, ‘because it has become a platform full of trolls, extremists and worse’, which he felt was producing a climate of fear for his colleagues and his constituents.
Social media companies are not the enemy here; the problem is that these platforms received an average of 10,000 messages every day, while others received fewer than five a day. This obviously presents huge potential inconsistencies between MPs’ abilities to respond to members of the public using this medium. Political engagement online is not functioning in a manageable or societally beneficial way.
No one party can - or should - be responsible for this, and so BCS and Demos are calling for a cross-party allegiance to work with existing social media platforms to improve their offerings. A solution to the current situation would be a purpose-built platform established to facilitate meaningful and effective political engagement online. BCS and Demos have written to all mainstream political parties asking them to work with us and each other to address the issue.
Online political engagement is here to stay, and questions around how well it is serving our political process will only increase over time. We now have the chance to get ahead; to give proper consideration to how the situation can be improved and make IT better for society.