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Do ‘too many tweets make a …’?: MPs’ use of electronic hand-held devices in the Chamber

David Cameron, speaking on breakfast radio in 2009, famously claimed, ‘too many tweets might make a twat’.

So has he been proved right by the recent changes allowing MPs to use devices such as iPads and smartphones whilst in the Chamber? Are MPs using these devices to communicate directly with constituents in a way that engages and informs the public? Or are the dangers associated with such an instant method of communication too great, leading to a wave of gaffes that reinforce the widespread belief that MPs are out of touch?

My research on MPs’ use of hand-held devices in the Chamber suggests that MPs are adopting this new method of communication with vigour and using it to engage in a valuable two-way discussion with constituents. Almost all respondents to my survey of the 2010 intake of MPs had used a handheld electronic device in the Chamber and 48 per cent had used their device to tweet in the Chamber.

The use of Twitter in the House of Commons is increasing the transparency of Westminster. Allowing MPs to directly communicate with citizens in real time during debates means that they can express their opinions on the issue, answer any questions and concerns and most importantly explain the significance of a debate. Over half of the MPs who responded to my survey used Twitter more than once a week to comment on debates in the House. This allows citizens to easily keep informed of events in Westminster as they are happening, should they want to.

MPs’ use of Twitter makes them seem more approachable to the public and their constituents. The personal character of the social network allows MPs to communicate in a more human way. This should help to improve the public’s perception of MPs and will hopefully go someway to rebuilding bridges burnt by the 2009 expenses scandal.

Most importantly allowing handheld devices in the Chamber means that the public can easily express their opinions to MPs during a debate and MPs can quickly gauge their constituents’ opinion in a bite-sized format. It also allows them to respond to any questions or concerns raised by the public. My survey showed that MPs regularly use Twitter for this function. Forty five per cent said they used it to gauge constituents’ views more than once a week and half said they used it more than once a week to respond to Tweets from the public. Many MPs have reported doing this during debates. Allowing the use of hand-held devices in the Chamber has therefore encouraged a dialogue in which both MPs and the public play a valuable part.

Of course social media cannot be used to replace traditional forms of communication, as it will exclude many groups, particularly the elderly and those without a computer. But, used as part of a larger communication strategy, Twitter can engage new groups in the political process. Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s ‘Twitter czar’, has pointed out that young people are more likely to follow their MP on Twitter than attend a coffee morning or community meeting. A good social media strategy can help engage an entirely new group of young voters.

Some MPs will, however, say things they shouldn’t on Twitter. Diane Abbot’s recent discussion with a constituent, which led to accusations of racism, shows the drama that can be unleashed by an ill-thought comment. But MPs have always been prone to saying things they shouldn’t, especially when microphones are around. David Cameron’s use of the word ‘twat’ on breakfast radio illustrates this point nicely. Twitter just allows them to do this in an electronic format.

MPs might make the occasional gaffe but the benefits of this form of communication for MPs far outweigh the costs. Social Media cannot be expected to remedy MPs’ serious image problem. However, these findings show that MPs are using it to engage in a new kind of instant dialogue, one that might help restore public trust in Parliament.

Julia Ridpath is a third year Nottingham University undergraduate studying Politics and History. The post is based on research she did for the Parliament in the UK module taught by Mark Stuart. She is, funnily enough, on Twitter: @JuliaRid.

Published inBritish PoliticsUndergraduate Posts

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