Why not let social media run the country?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News


Why bother having elections and votes in Parliament, when you can find out what the people want in real time, 24 hours a day, on social media?

No-one is seriously suggesting that the keys to Downing Street should be handed over to Facebook users. Or that the prime minister should be replaced by a Twitter feed, however tempting that might seem to some.

But the weird, and slightly scary, fact is that after years of overly-optimistic predictions about e-democracy, social media is now so freely available and widespread that it would probably work. In theory.

"Technologically it is now possible. We could function as a direct democracy," Labour MP Kevin Brennan told a Hansard Society event at Westminster.

"The cost of obtaining people's views on a range of different subjects is miniscule compared to any other time in history, unless you go back to ancient Greece when you just gathered in the market place and you could have a direct vote on things."

But, argued the shadow education minister, it would be a truly terrible idea.

image captionIs Westminster ready for a social media revolution?

"Ultimately someone has got to take a decision. How comfortable would we be with a decision on capital punishment taken via a TV debate and a vote on Twitter?

"We have indirect democracy for a reason. When does crowdsourcing become mob rule?"

The whole point of representative democracy, of the kind practised for centuries at Westminster and in most Western democracies, is that it acts as a brake on "wild and irrational decisions", he reasoned.

Irrational mob

But could social media be harnessed by politicians in a more modest way to help them form better policies?

The experts assembled by the Hansard Society, in a windowless conference room in an obscure corner of the Parliamentary estate, were divided on this one.

Britain Thinks polling chief Deborah Mattinson thought politicians should take advantage of the vast ocean of vaguely political chat sloshing around on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest. It might give them a better handle on what voters are feeling about their decisions (social media is particularly good at gauging emotion, the panel agreed).

Just as long as they don't start mistaking it for public opinion.

"Social media is not a giant focus group and we shouldn't confuse it with that, we shouldn't think it is the same," Ms Mattinson told the event.

Social media users are entirely self-selecting and although there are millions of them, spanning many age and income groups, they do not include everybody and there is no reliable way of checking their authenticity. They could be posing as other people or not expressing their true opinion.

They also have a habit of behaving like an irrational mob, "shutting down debate quite aggressively", argued Gordon Brown's former polling guru, and many of them only communicate with narrow groups of like-minded people.

Then there is the question of how to cut through the crushing banality of most tweets (MPs are some of the worst offenders here, the panel agreed).

The answer might be a piece of software, WeGov, being developed by computer scientists at Southampton University, with help from the Hansard Society and EU funding.

Privacy concerns

There are dozens of "sentiment analysis" programmes on the market that allow companies to monitor what people are saying about their products on social media.

image captionKevin Brennan: Social media MP of the Year in 2010

But Wegov, which is in the final stages of development, claims to be the first one specifically designed for politicians, enabling them to monitor debate, filter out the background "noise" and zoom in on what people are saying about them and their policies in a particular geographical area.

Paul Walland, one of the computer scientists behind the software, told the event that politicians would even be able to break into conversations to defend policies or pose questions.

But although Mr Walland insisted WeGov will only check publicly available sources, there are serious privacy concerns.

"There is a feeling of creepiness, I think, that people get when people realise that their conversations are being mined, processed and spat out the other end for delectation of politicians for making policy," said Kevin Brennan.

Perhaps, suggested Deborah Mattinson and Nick Pickles, of Big Brother Watch, politicians should ask people first before listening in on their online conversations.

So, setting aside all the hype and conjecture, are there any examples of social media actually being used to shape government policy?

Bold experiments

When the coalition was formed, it launched a series of bold experiments in crowdsourcing laws and throwing open government data to public scrutiny. It also reformatted Labour's e-petition scheme, allowing it to trigger debates in Parliament.

How much of this has filtered through to actually policy is hard to say. Critics would say very little.

But Nick Jones, deputy director of digital communications at Downing Street, insists that the revolution is still on track.

Asked to come up with an example, he points to the Red Tape Challenge, which has received more than 28,000 comments since it was launched by the prime minister last year and which has a "social media element".

More than 150 pieces of legislation identified by the public as unnecessary have been so far been scrapped.

Not one to set the pulse racing, Mr Jones conceded, but a sign, perhaps, that social media could be on its way to being a part of the everyday fabric of government.

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