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Playing politics on Twitter

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Back in Wilson’s day, the concept of Twitter hashtags was still half a century away but what hasn’t changed in the last couple of weeks is #cameronmustgo, which has consistently been among the UK’s top trends.

What’s also not changed is the fact that David Cameron hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still Prime Minister and that hashtag won’t make a difference right now.

So is there any point to such social media campaigns? Do they actually achieve anything or give political parties much to worry about?

On the face of it, the answer is “no.” But that’s not to say nothing ever comes of them, as demonstrated by the recent case of Labour shadow minister Emily Thornberry.

She tweeted a photograph of a house with England flags fluttering from windows and a white van in the driveway and seemed to suggest that this was something she wasn’t altogether used to seeing. The fact that it all began on Twitter helped to build momentum, as Thornberry was (rightly or wrongly) branded a snob and a typically out of touch MP.

Due its potential impact at Westminster, the attention of politicians and the media was quickly drawn to the story, bringing it out of social media and into “mainstream” debates. From there, it became a matter of time before Thornberry was forced to resign.

Here, there was a perceived error that drew in an audience outside social media. But Tweeting #cameronmustgo (or for that matter #milibandmustgo, #cleggmustgo etc) is vague and arguably doesn’t reflect any specific reason for a wider audience to become involved. Therefore, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg simply won’t “go” and their social media teams will continue to push PR while waiting for the internet to get bored of those hashtags and move onto something else.

Yet writing off these campaigns altogether perhaps isn’t the wisest course to take. While hashtags and Twitter storms are a modern equivalent of marches, placards and rebellions, the fact that #cameronmustgo has trended for so long is an indication that it’s struck a chord with some.

Above all, Twitter and social media are allowing users to engage with politics in ways which weren’t possible 10 years ago. Young people in particular are turning towards the news and opinions they view there – and some politicians do tend to get it right. The website politics.co.uk has identified top Tweeters among MPs and listed the qualities involved in effective political tweeting, among which are humour, personality, openness and the ability to grab headlines (in the right way).

Will all of this lead to social media holding a greater influence over politics in the future? And are more and more people being persuaded by the facts and arguments they see there? Only time will tell – and while hashtags won’t change things for the moment, next year’s election just might.

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