Signal and Noise

British society and its politics are increasingly influenced by social media – which presents both democratic opportunities and also practical challenges for MPs. If they are unable to make sense of the digital ‘noise’, or feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of information or hostile interactions, their confidence to engage is threatened.  Furthermore, social media creates measures of opinion organised by themes that can be difficult for MPs to understand or value, relative to more traditional measures of influence or representation. And yet, the growth of digital politics also creates new expectations: about what people expect of their elected representatives and what MPs might expect in return.

This short paper examines one aspect of this very broad challenge: whether technology can (and should) help MPs make better use of social media by collecting Twitter data and subjecting it to a series of analyses.

We conclude from our analysis that:

  • A large amount of politics and political conversation is now taking place online, creating a new ‘digital commons.’
  • The data created by this digital commons is too large for an MP to manage, and technological solutions are necessary
  • Technology is effective in handling the data that makes up this new digital commons

There is an urgent need for technologists to work with political institutions in the UK to make this technology available and usable, and for political institutions and politicians to work alongside, support and encourage its development.

It is widely acknowledged that online discourses take place under a different set of norms to those online. This was emphasised time and again in discussions with MPs and other members of political parties, who repeated the line that much of what they found unpleasant or counterproductive in online politics simply didn’t happen offline.

This is part of a wider story: long-established cultures, expectations and pressures around the way we communicate have not taken root online. But for digital politics to be a success, effort will have to go towards creating a digital culture in which it can take place.

As the report shows, a huge amount of political activity takes place online. UK politics has had to adapt to digital tools that are by no means tailored to the structures, expectations and traditions of our democracy. We must carefully identify the positive examples of digital politics in the UK and celebrate them, and identify the negative and call them out. Where possible, politicians should work closely with the major technology companies to identify improvements in existing platforms would improve the democratic process in the UK.

For many reasons, some of which are outlined within the report, existing platforms are not tailored to politics. As we move towards an increasingly digital society, and expectations of our politics and democracy change to match this, we must ensure the technology we conduct our politics through is fit for the task.  This is likely to require a dedicated platform for the digital democracy in the UK – a topic explored and tested within this report.

The report can be downloaded in full here.

Learn more about Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, and its work monitoring the 2017 General Election, here.

For media enquiries, please contact [email protected], and to discuss the project in further detail, please contact its author, Alex Krasodomski-Jones.