Tavish Scott: Just how influential is social media anyway?
WHAT drove the Arab Spring last year which saw the tumble of one party states as people overthrew strong men who had ruled without the inconvenience of a democratic mandate? Was it social media?
Facebook, Twitter and videos filmed using the mobile phone were seen as key to the flow of information. Whether broadcasters should use mobile phone footage as fact is a moot point. I would rather see Kate Aidie or Alan Little reporting and trust their interpretation of the scenes they are seeing than rely on an unnamed person’s grainy pictures which cannot be verified. But be that as it may, in the absence of news reporters then phone footage is inevitably used.
The Scottish parliament this week hosted parliamentarians from the British and Mediterranean region. The BMIR conference discussed whether social media was an essential tool in reconnecting politicians to people. Ex-MSP John McAllion argued that there had never been greater transparency yet less respect for political figures. Would more sound bites help?
Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential campaign is used as the exemplar of social media. But this November Obama’s re-election campaign expects to spend only 3.5 per cent of his $1 billion war chest on social media. What the experts say made the difference for candidate Barack four years ago was his campaign’s brilliant use of non-political messaging. Americans did not know him. So social media was used to raise non-political points. Could he have won without it? No say the experts. But the availability of the internet across the USA is greater than elsewhere.
Dr Dimitrios Christopoulos is an expert on all this. He is a Greek scholar and studied at Glasgow University citing the excitement of the Govan by-election for basing himself there. His seminal point was on the volatility of an election. Where things are tight and the margin for error is limited then social media can be instrumental in swinging a result. In 2008 in the US one quarter of voters made up their minds in the last week and 21 per cent changed their minds just three days before polling day. But the US is perhaps different from the rest of the world.
It was Christpoulos’s observations about the Arab Spring that resonated. Despite the perception Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was not overthrown by Twitter, people protested because they wanted change and encouraged their friends to take part despite the dangers. Social media played a small role in keeping people informed, but it was far less relevant than word of mouth, the phone or even that oldest of political tools – the leaflet.
The conference in Edinburgh finished with a major challenge to politicians. Should the use of personal data from Facebook and the like be used without consent? Look at your own Facebook site and ask whether you want your details used by others?
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland. Tweet your thoughts @tavishscott
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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