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Social media is lost on politicians

Social_media_politicians‘Missing the point’ is all in a day’s work for a politician but an expert on social media recently confirmed politicians were literally clueless when it came to using social networking tools and engaging people on the net in a meaningful way, writes M.E Bell.

With Australia’s federal election campaign now in full swing, internet-hopping politicians are doing the rounds on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, and furiously selling themselves on the campaign trail. Of course, let’s not forget the plethora of advisers in Camp Gillard and Camp Abbott who are working around the clock, tweeting their leaders’ every move.

UTS Professor Jim Macnamara believes political parties are using online networks as a means to broadcast a one-way communication flow, instead of listening, and this misuse of social media tools and platforms is leaving voters cold.

“Research is showing that people don't want more information from politicians and government … they actually want more listening,” he told ABC’s Lateline. “It's essentially a one-way conversation and that's not what social media's about and it's not what the research is showing. Research is showing that people don't want more information from politicians and government, they actually want more listening.”

Social media is a turn on for politicians – a phenomenon they simply can’t resist as it redefines participatory democracy and gives leaders direct access to every corner of the voting public. But while more than a hundred Australian politicians have taken the plunge towards social media, whether any of them can actually use the technology remains to be seen.

Last month we watched Greens candidate Lee Rhiannon blow up after her political enemies accused her of misusing state-funded resources to campaign for a seat in the federal Senate. The ugly truth was on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, listing contact details for her state parliament office. Strangely, her faith in social media remained unshaken, instead she turned to Twitter to tweet that she wouldn’t be quitting over “a few typos”.

And of course there was the Twitter blunder by a politician in NSW, where instead of sending a private message to a journalist, he posted a public message headed “deeply off the record” and called Prime Minister Julia Gillard “a ranga.” His name? Barry O’Farrell, the Liberal NSW Opposition leader.

“What we say in those environments is not private information,” Macnamara told the ABC. “In fact Twitter actually says that you're talking to the world and people can follow you and you can have a large following, so anyone using Twitter or any of the online social networks needs to be aware that what they say is being said publicly.”

Clearly, these social networks have a wonderful ability to give politicians a common touch, even the ones we don’t consider fully human. Take robotron and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for example.

In the eyes of voters, Rudd was a PM owned by his personal selfish interests but Twitter gave him a sense of authenticity that mainstream media never could: “Lots of beach walks with Therese and Jess. Great to feel sand between the toes again. KRudd.” Who would have known KRudd had toes before now?

If you swing by some of Australia’s most notable politicians’ social media sites, you’ll see that Julia Gillard is “having lunch with soldiers,” Bob Brown is admiring a Greens billboard in the street, Family First’s Stephen Fielding is tweeting that he’ll be on the radio soon and Liberal leader Tony Abbott looks forward to going for a surf.  Lunch, billboards, radio interviews, and surfing. They’re all matters of public interest.

Perhaps these pollies think that if Barack Obama tried his hand at social media, they can they can too. The power of YouTube throughout the 08 US presidential election took amateur videomaking to new dizzying heights and signalled the rise of virtual campaigning.

The entire world watched US candidates throw themselves at YouTube, rub shoulders with the ‘Common American Joe’ and turned these politicians into overnight YouTube stars.

The facts speak for themselves, with the ‘Yes We Can’ video attracting 3.7 million views, and Obama’s election night video drawing a YouTube audience of more than five million.

And the social media phenomenon is not unique to the United States.

Forgetting the fact that UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron openly criticised social media while in Opposition, he has completely overhauled the government’s approach to social networking, instructing all government ministers to fly a digital media flag under Number10Gov.

We’re seeing that these social media tools are limited only by their resources and can publish colossal amounts of information, transforming the way the public receives its information.

On the face of it, social networking seems like a good way to get hip with the times. Cameron has played the social media game hard, becoming quite the YouTube pin-up boy as he uses video to get messages across to young voters and drip through to the public consciousness.

A visit to Number10Gov makes for interesting viewing, especially if you stumble across a video interview between the British PM and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Now we have a situation where social media is cheerleading the government’s use of social media.

Politicians haven’t committed any crime in entering the social media realm. Nor is it criminal to behave like a wolf scouring the online countryside. But if our leaders don’t use these tools to engage people in critical commentary, to genuinely have a dialogue with voters, then one must ask why they are using social media.

Perhaps the key to dealing with social media forums is to approach them with honesty, integrity and a genuine commitment to the social media cause. These may sound like motherhood statements but the fact is – people don’t like bullshit. We want to feel loved and we are trying to find meaning – this is the currency of life in social media.

Maybe politicians need to give us something of value instead of working on their perceived reputation issues.  Better yet, instead of sitting inside an office and posting a Facebook status update, they may want to step outside, talk to the people and figure out what is going on. It’s a big wide world out there.

M.E. Bell is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.


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