Anti-social media: why are MPs moving away from Twitter?
Twitter and politics at one point seemed inseparable. But with a number of new and existing MPs prioritising other social media channels, or boycotting the site altogether, is the platform’s influence beginning to wane? Marie Le Conte reports
If you have been working in Westminster for the past few years, it is highly likely that you have spent most of your time glued to Twitter.
In the parliamentary chaos of the post-2016 world, the platform became the centre stage of the political bubble; a place where stories were endlessly broken and retracted, where telling arguments and intriguing rumours were laid out for all to see, and where a working day could feel like an entire month.
People kept talking about cutting back on their Twitter use or giving it up altogether, but they always came back, for fear of staying out of the loop for too long. In the Brexit drama era, it was the place to be.
Then, something intriguing happened. The 2019 election came and went, the House of Commons welcomed countless new MPs – a lot of them under 35 – but several of them didn’t pop up on Twitter.
This should have been the most online generation of parliamentarians to date, but many of the new MPs simply chose to eschew Twitter altogether. Nickie Aiken, the new Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster and former Westminster council leader is one of them.
“I just got so fed up with Twitter during the local elections in 2018. You get a bit of abuse, but you also can’t debate with people in a few characters, and I just lost the will to actually take it seriously”, she explains.
“I did have a council leader Twitter feed which my office ran, and which was basically a broadcast – it wasn’t there to have a debate with anybody – and I turned that off when I stood for election last year.”
A turning point for Aiken was noticing several “quite misogynistic” fake accounts set up in her name before she was elected, which the platform refused to do anything about. “I took them to Twitter and they said, ‘it’s a parody, live with it’. It wasn’t parody in my opinion, it was abusive, and it was there to create harassment and bullying. I just thought ‘Fine. If that’s your attitude then I don’t need you, so I’ll just turn you off’. So, I stopped using it.”
She hasn’t looked back since. Darlington’s new MP Peter Gibson, on the other hand, never bothered with Twitter in the first place. The managing director of a law firm until the election, he chose to focus on other social media platforms instead.
“I’ve been familiar with using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn as part of the business that I previously ran. Having seen what happens to politicians on Twitter, it just didn’t really appeal,” says the Tory MP. “It just simply seems to me, certainly at the constituency level, as another avenue for trolls to inhabit. There are plenty of other ways that the trolls can reach you without giving them another avenue.”
As Gibson sees it, people in his seat are not likely to follow him on Twitter, so there is little point in submitting himself to potential abuse on the platform. Instead, Facebook is where the election was fought online:
“My social media strategy was building a very positive picture in terms of Facebook community engagement… We weren’t wasting time with Twitter where the vast majority of MPs’ followers are not people who can vote for them or live anywhere near their constituency,” he says.
Aiken makes a similar point. “I’ve just fought a general election and not one person said to me, ‘I haven’t seen you on Twitter’. And you know, I knocked on a lot of doors.”
Although campaigning and serving as an MP are very different things, neither is planning to join (or rejoin) Twitter in the near future.
MPs without a Twitter account are a minority (somewhere around 10% to 15% of them), but that still means that a few dozen parliamentarians miss out on the daily circus of the platform.
Long-serving Labour MP Clive Betts, for example, briefly had an account then decided to delete it. “We stopped fairly quickly. We tried to reflect on what we wanted to achieve, and that was trying to get what I do across to a wider range of people. We took advice, we talked to other colleagues, talked to my Labour party members, and in the end, we came to the view that Facebook was probably a better way of making comments which people could tap into, but also to try and target some of those comments to particular groups or people living in the area,” he explains.
This seems to be the crux of the argument for a lot of the MPs who do not use Twitter: what is there to gain from it? For most backbenchers – especially the ones in marginal seats – social media only has one purpose: keeping in touch with constituents.
If that is the goal, then Facebook is the obvious answer, as normal voters are considerably more likely to use it than any other platform. While Twitter did appear to be a must have for MPs in the past few years, it may well have been a fad.
After all, its rise coincided with a particularly hectic time in Westminster politics, and its addictive and instantaneous format was well-suited to the never-ending twists and turns of the period.
Between accounts tweeting out every Commons vote in real time and experts delivering snap explanations of what had just happened and what may come next, Twitter became an accidentally perfect companion to parliamentary madness.
On top of this, Brexit cutting across party lines in unexpected ways, Labour’s leadership being at war with its MPs and the Commons having a small or non-existent majority created the perfect Twitter storm for individual MPs wishing to make their views heard.
Now that there is a considerable majority for the Conservatives, a Brexit plan likely to stay on track and a Labour leadership contest underway, more and more MPs may well decide they daily abuse and the threat of bad headlines are no longer a price worth paying for exposure.
There may also be a growing consensus against a political sphere airing its collective dirty laundry in public. At a time when trust in politicians is dangerously low, MPs generating coverage by endlessly bickering with one another online might not be the way forward.
And while not using Twitter was once a certain way to get political FOMO (for the uninitiated, this means ‘fear of missing out’), the information ecosystem has been steadily evolving. Like Nickie Aiken, we may soon see MPs being on Twitter but only using their accounts to discuss their work. Instead, the real action will solely take place on WhatsApp, away from prying eyes.
That is how 1922 committee chair Graham Brady uses social media: “Far more useful [than Twitter], apart from just being in touch with colleagues here, is following some of the WhatsApp groups. Some of them are specific to particular interests, and then there’s another one which is open to all Conservative MPs. There’s a lot of chatter on there which is possible to follow and see what issues are troubling people,” he says.
Twitter opened a window into the Westminster bubble at its messiest, for good or ill; now the dust is settling, that window may be about to close again.