“Too many twits make a twat” said David Cameron in 2009 when talking about Twitter and politics.
Things have changed. Social media is playing an increasingly central role in the way many voters receive and share information.
Just this week, Twitter announced some major changes after it was revealed it had hosted adverts linked to Russia during the US election. In a bid to become more transparent, the tech firm will now make information on who is behind a political advert, how long the ad has been running and what users the ad is targeted at publicly available.
With an estimated 328 million monthly active users, the platform provides the perfect forum for voters and politicians alike to connect at the click of a button.
There have been several studies focusing on how politicians are increasingly using Twitter as a tool to disseminate their views issues and how voters have mobilised on social media. However, few have looked at whether politicians are influenced by what they see on Twitter and what their information consumption habits are.
In partnership with YouGov, Portland commissioned research to explore what information MPs are seeing and to what extent they are being influenced by this content consumed via Twitter. Surveying a representative sample of 100 sitting MPs, our report found the majority of MPs are actively using Twitter themselves, not just their intern tweeting on their behalf, and they aren’t just using it to disseminate information.
In fact, it found over half (57%) of those surveyed said that they sometimes log into their accounts when in the Chamber, and six out of 10 MPs did so during Prime Minister’s Questions – being influenced by and influencing the real-time analysis of PMQs outside of the chamber.
While two-thirds of MPs elected prior to the 1997 General Election say they use Twitter as a source of information on a daily basis, nearly all of MPs elected after 2015 say they use the platform on a daily basis.
To further understand what exactly are MPs seeing on Twitter, we conducted an audit of MPs’ Twitter networks by looking at who they followed and what information MPs were receiving. The research found that MPs’ networks tend to be large, with the average MP following 1,750 users.
Hardly surprising, as well as following journalists, politicians are following one another with their networks limited to domestic politics, and international leaders accounting for less than 2% of their political networks.
While MPs are highly connected to media and news accounts, they are more likely to follow individual journalists and correspondents than official handles belonging to news outlets. But they aren’t just following passively as eight in ten MPs surveyed said that they used the platform on a regular basis as a way to access news and information.
Similarity with news content, MPs tended to favour individual corporate leaders than corporate accounts with 65% of all corporate-linked accounts belong to individuals and not corporate handles.
Twitter is now, correctly, seen as an effective tool to help win elections. But what is also now clear, given how ubiquitous its use is throughout Westminster, the right message or campaign has potential to reach policy makers directly on their mobile phones.