Westminster Is Addicted To Twitter, But Can It Live Without It?
More than 90 per cent of MPs have a Twitter account, from the Prime Minister, to recently elected backbenchers (Alamy)
When the political upheaval of partygate, the fall of two prime ministers and the appointment of a third, a porn-watching MP and numerous misconduct allegations tore through Westminster this year, there were few in Whitehall who weren’t refreshing their Twitter feeds every few seconds for their latest fix of the drama.
Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, became Twitter’s self-appointed “Gossip Girl”, using the site to pepper the speculation around Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street parties during lockdown with his own spicy takes on what happened behind the famous black door.
“I am constantly scrolling and refreshing to find out what is going on. I would say it's probably an unhealthy habit,” Labour MP and shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones told PoliticsHome. She has been using the platform since 2009, and has just over 10,000 followers. Her posts range from campaigning on issues such as IVF to cheering along with the World Cup Final.
But with Twitter’s new multibillionaire owner Elon Musk having taken a scorched earth approach to running the platform, banning critical journalists and allowing trolls to return in the name of free speech, its future looks uncertain.
A number of journalists, campaigners, and everyday users have left the platform in response, leaving a bird app-addicted political class in something of a pickle. Can Westminster kick its Twitter habit? And what could political commentary, currently so driven by it, look like without it?
UK politics was initially slow to warm to Twitter, which launched in 2006. A former Labour policy advisor in the early 2010s said that while emerging social media was seen as “cutting edge”, and Labour was keen to embrace it, they simply didn’t know how.
“Nobody really had any metric of success and certainly politicians were not using it themselves,” he told PoliticsHome.
In 2011, Balls accidentally turned himself into a meme while attempting to search the platform for an article about himself, and instead mistakenly tweeted his own name.
The birth of #EdBallsDay not only demonstrated that politicians were struggling to navigate social media, it showed how easily MPs could go viral and gain the attention of millions of voters, not just tech nerds and “space age people in the corner”, as the former adviser put it.
MPs from all parties soon discovered that Twitter offered them an easy way to post quick thoughts as they moved around Parliament, and immediately reap the reward of people reacting to, and therefore amplifying, their political voice.
Analysis by Politics Social, which tracks the social media activity of MPs, shows that 90.7 per cent of MPs have a Twitter account, from the Prime Minister, to recently elected backbenchers. Of the only 60 MPs without one, the vast majority are Conservatives. At the time of writing, 59 per cent of MPs who have Twitter were active in the last 24 hours.
Ben Guerin, a digital strategist who has worked on campaigns for the Conservative Party, believes politicians are “addicted” to Twitter for two reasons: “The first one is its unparalleled speed, and the second is information density.”
Davies-Jones says she worries she’ll miss something important if not scrolling Twitter. “It’s always needing to know what's going on, wanting to be ahead of colleagues or seeing what people are discussing,” she explained.
Bénédicte Earl, a digital associate who has worked on a number of Conservative leadership campaigns, told PoliticsHome that MPs are very conscious of how their Commons speeches will travel on social media, focussing on “speaking in soundbites” or shortening speeches to optimise their potential for sharing.
“An MP said that they will stand in a specific place in the chamber so their view is not blocked by the microphone so that they can get the clip of themselves and use it on social media later,” she said.
Its ‘trending’ topics feature also allows politicians to gain an insight into what people are talking about. “It influences how you talk to constituents or what topics you bring up in the chamber,” Davies-Jones said.
But there are questions over how representative of the wider population it is, or whether politicians are mostly speaking to one another. While the UK is one of Twitter’s biggest users globally, less than half of the population has an account.
“Who are you actually speaking to?,” a former Labour digital strategist urges MPs to consider. He believes the answer is more likely to be the “Westminster bubble” than constituents.
Researching how Twitter impacts political campaigning, Earl’s findings suggested that it has no impact on voting, but does assist MPs with garnering support from within their own party.
Many politicians have used strong personal brands on Twitter to campaign and influence policy decisions and shape media narratives on a topic.
Labour MP Jess Phillips, who has more than 620,000 followers, used her platform to post regular updates and petitions to promote and gain support for her work on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which successfully passed through Parliament last year. Viral videos of Phillips in the Commons reading out the names of every woman who had been killed by a man that year helped lend her campaign an emotive urgency.
Peter Cardwell, political editor of Talk Radio, is typical of journalists who use Twitter for newsgathering. “Who looks at email press releases anymore?”
The reactive nature of Twitter has also led many MPs to use it to air grievances, particularly on contentious culture war topics, knowing full well that punchy interactions make for highly shareable online news stories, which in turn serve to amplify their message. Throughout Boris Johnson’s downfall, former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries gleefully fed the digital media ecosystem as his unofficial hype-woman.
Conservative MP Lee Anderson, who has only recently joined the platform, said he did so specifically to wind up his adversaries, gaining 2,000 followers before he’d even tweeted. He now has just over 30,000 and regularly racks up thousands of likes and retweets.
“I want to see who I can trigger: the Guardian readers, the Mirror readers and the Labour MPs,” he told PoliticsHome the day after he rejoined the app.
“It's a battleground, where the right and the left can have a bit of a fight, it is a place where people can be nasty and horrible, to have a bit of fun, to be mischievous, to be able to try and get clicks.”
He believes the popularity of his account is not “because I'm a super politician” but because he says “controversial” things, which range from anti-immigrant sentiment, to having a pop at Labour-supporting footballer Gary Neville.
Former Welsh secretary Robert Buckland, who has been tweeting since 2008 and has more than 30,000 followers, was scathing of such an approach and says being offensive should not be worn as a “badge of honour”.
“I don't think setting off as your first intent to provoke a fight is the right way to do politics,” he said.
The evolution of Twitter as an aggressor in politics has led to many MPs being subjected to a torrent of hate and threats of violence. According to analysis by Amnesty International, women in politics are more likely to be abused on social media, while Black and Asian women receive a disproportionate amount of it.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has spoken out against the social media abuse she has received, which has included threats which led to police involvement and a criminal conviction.
“My eldest son said to me once, ‘Mum, is it worth it?’. Because he sees all the abuse that I get. It hurts him. He’s an adult male, and his mum gets a tsunami of abuse constantly,” she told The House magazine in September.
Some MPs have even previously cited social media abuse as a reason for standing down at the next general election, including Sir Charles Walker, who said social media was contributing to an increasingly “toxic” political environment and that he no longer “has the stomach for it”.
Labour MP Sarah Owen recently told PoliticsHome you need “rhino skin” to be able to cope with online criticism.
“If these things had never been invented, maybe the world would be in a better place,” Buckland added.
Since taking over Twitter, Musk has fired half of his staff, including whole departments, prompting a widespread panic that the website might cease to function effectively, and the UK’s political elite may find they need a new digital home.
Buckland said he would leave Twitter if it became overtly toxic, and believes the app has a responsibility to clamp down on hate speech.
“It's an organisation with an incredible potential impact on people's lives, wellbeing and livelihoods,” he said. “The accountability of that platform is very important. I don't want to see a return to Twitter washing its hands of the problems, which was the hallmark of the early period of the social media platforms in the early 2010s.”
Alex Davies-Jones described Musk’s actions as “dangerous” and highlighted the need for the Online Safety Bill to pass through Parliament so that legislation to tackle harmful content online can be introduced.
So far, potential successors to Twitter have not gained much traction, and while Mastodon seems the most obvious outrider, the platform's complexity suggests it could struggle to have the same broad appeal as Twitter.
Guerin believes TikTok is its closest cousin in terms of shareability because it allows posts to go ‘viral’ but because making videos is both time and resource-intensive, many MPs are reluctant to commit.
Peter Cardwell thinks the only reason MPs and political journalists would voluntarily leave if Musk started actively suspending influential figures in UK politics, which he doesn’t believe is likely, despite many journalists in the US having been suspended.
“Musk doesn’t really care about SW1,” Cardwell said.
At least for now MPs do continue to use Twitter as their primary platform, but neither Buckland nor Davies-Jones would be especially sad to see the back of it.
“I would get some sleep rather than just scrolling aimlessly,” Davies-Jones joked.
Buckland worried that many MPs’ obsession with social media detracts from debate and policy development anyway.
“It's a massive danger and I think colleagues will be best advised to even take it off their phones,” he said.
“Deeper and calmer thought processes would make for better politics and a better government. We’re constantly getting interrupted by fights and storms.
“The more we rely on social media, the more polarised and the more antisocial politics will become. That could be a very, very dangerous thing for future participation.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe