Alastair Dalton: Humza Yousaf becoming a Twitter trailblazer

Donald Trump's stream-of-consciousness tweets have highlighted how politicians are using social media to interact with people.

Humza Yousaf is using Twitter as a new debating forum. Picture: Neil Hanna
Humza Yousaf is using Twitter as a new debating forum. Picture: Neil Hanna

A very different politician is leading the way in this on Scotland - transport minister Humza Yousaf, who has more Twitter followers than pretty much any Scottish politician apart from Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson.

He was the youngest MSP when elected in 2011, and, at 31, has brought a youthful engagement to a technology some older Parliamentarians still struggle with.

The minister is followed by nearly 53,000 people on Twitter, and although eclipsed by the First Minister’s 500,000 and the Scottish Conservative leader’s 80,000, has tweeted nearly as many times as both of them put together - more than 26,000.

Transport may be a natural for Twitter, being such a fast-moving issue which affects everyone’s lives daily, so the sheer volume of tweets is not surprising.

This week, they have included updates on the closure and re-opening of the Forth Road Bridge, and other travel disruption caused by snow and strong winds across the country.

Mr Yousaf will be mindful - like his predecessors - of the poisoned chalice that being transport minister can be when things start to go wrong, especially when the weather is involved.

It led to the resignation of Stewart Stevenson, the first SNP incumbent, with Derek Mackay being given a stern test over a previous closure of the Forth Road Bridge in 2015.

That means Twitter can be an ideal tool for highlighting everything that transport authorities are doing to keep us moving and the networks open.

It’s therefore unsurprising that ministers might want to eagerly embrace such an opportunity.

But critics might argue it can also give the exaggerated impression that a minister is doing a lot themselves, rather than just highlighting the flurry of activity around them.

Aside from travel updates, transport can also be a vexed issue, with most people having a particular bee in their bonnet about how it makes their lives worse, from crowded trains to parking fines.

This is where Mr Yousaf has bypassed traditional ministerial relationships with people, by using Twitter to directly respond to claims and debate issues.

Ordinary voters previously only got near ministers at special events and while campaigning at elections.

Opening this new line of communication can only be for the good, when the internet can generate wild claims, conspiracy theories and misapprehensions about complex issues that can become blown up out of proportion - and sometimes leapt upon by politicians of all persuasions.

But being able to lobby and engage with a minister electronically is also useful in helping to underline the strength of feeling - or otherwise - on specific issues.

That way feedback is not filtered through official channels and political opponents.

In the United States, the president-elect has been both vilified for his use of Twitter and seen as its potential saviour.

Donald Trump may have a particular need to use it to communicate directly with the world in the face of perceived media hostility.

However, for politicians willing to use Twitter to interact as well as broadcast, it promises to improve the way we are governed.