Project Disrupt: The role of social media in public debate and policy

Jacinda Ardern is a Labour party list MP. I have already done a MPs on Twitter post about her. She was talking at Project Disrupt about the role of social media in politics.


She started the discussion with a story about how just after becoming an MP, she had to sit down with her EA and go through the images on her Facebook account to remove all of the questionable images. This was in 2008. At the time she was one of the few MPs who already had a social media presence before becoming an MP. As someone who was already in the social media world, becoming a public figure was her moment of disruption.


Despite all of the talk about the influence of social media and the power it has, the official policy formulation process within the Labour Party is still the same. It still flows through the Policy Council of the Labour party and it still originates from the MPs or members. It is interesting that we are talking about the role of social media in politics, but the second largest political party in NZ is still using the same policy development process they did 20+ years ago.


Jacinda did say that even in the time that she has been an MP, since 2008, there has been a shift in the way Labour MPs talk about how they are finding out what the publics views are. It has shifted from a measure of how many phone calls their electorate offices have received, or how many letters they have got. Now it is about how many Tweets or Facebook messages they have got.


Social media speeds up the feedback cycle for politicians. It also leverages peoples messages. It strength is not in motivating people, but in it’s ability to help people spread their messages that naturally motivate people. Jacinda talked about the Arab Spring. But making sure it was clear that it wasn’t Twitter that caused the Arab Spring, but it was the message that was spread on it.


With any discussion about public debate and policy is the question around the the number of people who didn’t vote at the last election. The three highest rating reasons for people not voting were a lack of trust in politicians, it was obvious who would win and just a total lack of interest. How can social media help solve this problem? In New Zealand we have accurate knowledge of who voted, some countries are looking at leveraging their version of that information to help people vote, could social media play a role in this? Could something similar to Foursquare be used, where you get a little badge for your profile for having voted? Or some other system that encourages people to vote.


Jacinda also pointed out that one way to overcome the situation of people not trust politicians is for politicians to present more of a human face. To get around the mediation that the media exercises, and get a more holistic, truthful image out there is a good thing. Part of this is also an individualised discussions with people, just like happens in real life, but that is not necessarily possible as much today, particularly in urban seats like Auckland Central, with it’s high number of people living in apartments.


There are two final points that Jacinda made that are worth talking about. Because of the way that she has her social media set up, every time she gets a message, it comes to her phone. There is a strong message in getting variations of the same message 200 times to your phone. It keeps reinforcing the message to MPs that things are important to the community. She also admitted that MPs are not using social media enough, or I suspect well enough either.