Twitter and elections

2009 and 2010 are exciting years to study the Internet. Anyway, I think so. Some of you may know my academic life revolves around micro-blogging these last months and the coming ones as well. The reason is that Twitter is becoming more and more popular amongst politicians. Not only that, in 2009 we had the European parliament elections where Twitter was used by some of the candidates. In 2010 we had the local elections in the Netherlands. Some two weeks before that we (i.e. the Dutch) had a governmental meltdown: the social democratic party (PvdA) decided to quit the government. Therefore, we also have general elections on June 9th. And then there is South Korea, where on June 2nd, there are local elections. Oh yes, the UK has general elections as well: Gordon Brown has to set a date that is before June 3rd.

As for South Korea, some interesting thongs are happening here. Apparently the political parties are stepping up their online campaign activities, according this newspaper article.The Grand National Party handed out smart-phones to national assembly members and candidates, hoping they will pick up text-messaging and Twitter to connect to the public. The Democratic Party also stepped up their online activities, creating a network party. These effort can be necessary. I learned that politicians in South Korea have a considerable

The Korean Election Committee however seems to have some problems with these increasing online political activities. To ensure fairness in election campaigning several regulations apply. Striving for fairness in campaigning is of course essential. At the same it seems quite impossible to banish Twitter or other kinds of micro-blogging services (let’s not forget there are other ones besides Twitter, such as Me2day, Plurk and Renren). First of all, micro-blogging is sort of an informal way of disseminating information. It’s low profile, no dressed up website, but merely short texts. At the same time the messages are only actively targeted to those that explicitly subscribed to the Tweets of the candidate. These are the ones that are already interested in politics in general and the candidate in particular. These probably will need little convincing to vote for the candidate as it is. Furthermore, the question is to what extent the Tweets are actually campaigning messages or merely chitchat. Tweeting about daily issues (enjoying your coffee, being stuck in traffic) doesn’t look like political campaigning. That is, political campaigning in the strictest sense. For some time now, politicians, at least in western countries increasingly personalize their campaigns, presenting themselves as mortals having the same problems other people also have. By doing so they hope, is their guess, they appear as normal people made of flesh and blood and hopefully more likable. This in turn should ultimately lead to more votes in the elections. The jury’s verdict on that is still out.

Just recently, David Nieborg (University of Amsterdam), guest in the radio show Tros Radio Online, said that the new social-democratic party leader Job Cohen (the former leader Wouter Bos resigned two weeks after the local elections and 12 weeks prior to the general elections)  should start using Twitter. He predicted this could lead to four more seats in parliament. Well, I’m not that sure. Twitter is not online a micro-blogging service, but also a social-network site. A characteristic of a social network is homophily: people that are similar tend to form a social network. So what happens is that politicians using twitter are primarily preaching to the converted instead of the disbelievers. However, the disbelievers is where the electoral gain is to be expected. So, the effectiveness of Twitter and other social network sites as campaigning tools for more electoral gain is expected to be limited. However, the final verdict is to be passed by empirical research.

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.