Beyond the election: #DEBill, Twitter and a glimpse of Internet-enabled direct democracy

In the latest of his guest posts, Simon Collister assesses the campaign over the Digital Economy Bill.

Now that the UK General Election is officially underway the media have gone into overdrive with their coverage of what the BBC is calling the 'Digital Election'. They've even made technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, 'Digital Election Correspondent' for the duration.

Dominating the digital election coverage has been Twitter: from parties using it to mobilise supporters through to its role providing a back-channel for debating the performance of party leaders during the televised debates. The media and political blogosphere have even claimed their first Twitter ‘scalp’ of the election. And, as if further evidence were needed, the BBC's Cellan-Jones took the crucial step of agreeing on what the Election hashtag was going to be.

But I want to argue that Twitter’s most interesting role since the General Election was announced is not how UK political parties plan to use it to campaign, but rather how the online grassroots lobbying over the Government’s Digital Economy Bill has perhaps provided us with a glimpse at what a digitally empowered democracy might look like.

First some background: the Digital Economy Bill (henceforth known by its Twitter hashtag #DEBill) has generated a great deal of contention owing to it's pro-industry and anti-Internet clauses. These include forcing open wifi providers, such as cafes, bars, libraries, etc, to close their networks or face crippling penalties if used to download copyrighted material, handing unprecedented powers to the Government and State to block and censor websites it (or big business) doesn’t like and taking over domain names where it sees fit.

In addition, the Labour government has received further criticism for the way it used the dissolution of Parliament ahead of an election to have the Bill approved with a minimum of debate time and scrutiny.

As a result, a range of disparate groups - from digital rights campaigners to artists and photographers - saw the Internet as key battle-ground for opposing or adequately debating the Digital Economy Bill.

Ahead of #DEBill’s main debate, social media was predominantly used by campaigners to mobilise support, highlight a wide-ranging piece of legislation with low public awareness and lobby MPs to attend the debate.

As soon as the Bill entered the House of Commons, however, Twitter become the de facto real-time social media tool for lobbying and advising MPs on the Bill’s complex content. Moreover, it arguably gave rise to a situation that could almost be described as an emergent form of digital direct democracy.

I plan to take a look at this phenomenon and offer some commentary and analysis on the way Twitter allowed the public to engage with a traditionally closed democratic process. Before I do this, however, it’s helpful to take a quick quantitative look at the #DEBill case study.

According to Twitter analytics tool, What The Hashtag?, the number of tweets containing the #DEBill hashtag across a three day period totalled 55,977. This content only covers the window from 6th April when the Bill received its first reading in the Commons until 8th April when it was given its final reading in the Lords before being passed into Law.

Add to this evidence that tracking hashtags alone provides only approximately half of the relevant Twitter content around an issue (See p. 8 of Nick Anstead and Ben O’Louglin’s working paper on Twitter and the Viewertariat [opens as pdf]) and it could be suggested the overall level of public debate was significantly higher.

The sheer volume of Twitter debate during this time-frame and in the immediate pre- and post-debate periods helped push the hashtag to the third highest global trending topic on Twitter that week.

As Twitter’s trending agenda is usually dominated by US current affairs and entertainment topics, to have the debate about a complex piece of UK legislation trending just below Justin Bieber is in itself, a major achievement.

If we drill down into this data we can take a look at some of the specific ways in which the hashtag was used. I argue that there are two outcomes for the #DEBill Twitter debate. The primary outcome is essentially an instrumental one. That is, Twitter was used to connect the public with MPs and the parliamentary process in ways and on a scale not seen before. Secondarily, I believe the way the debate played out over Twitter had an impact on the wider reputation of politics and democracy in the UK. Coincidentally, this effect comes at a crucial time for UK politics as the country prepares itself for an election where many voters have low expectations of the main parties.

Turning to Twitter and the #DEBill’s instrumental effects on UK democracy first, I want to suggest that never before have we seen the detailed machinations of parliamentary process become so transparent and porous.

While parliamentary proceedings have been televised publicly by the BBC since 1998 (although available commercially from 1992-1998), televised content rarely reaches a wide audience unless the debate is particularly newsworthy. And while the Digital Economy Bill made some headlines, its complexity meant it was unlikely to engage a mainstream audience. 

During the debate, however, a group of dedicated individuals augmented live coverage of debate on BBC Parliament with a real-time stream of Twitter updates. This meant anyone with an Internet connection could track the debate live and in real-time by searching for and following the relevant hashtag.

Moreover, the use of Twitter photo and video sharing tools such as Twitpic and Yfrog were put to effective use allowing the Bill to be reported online through multimedia.

In an exchange (via Twitter) with one of the debate's most prolific tweeters, I likened this activity to a 'real-time Hansard'. While she played down the comparison due to Twitter not providing word-for-word coverage of the debate, it was certainly possible to follow the debate’s key arguments based on the verbatim information and contextual links to other online resources being tweeted.  

It's important to remember that it wasn’t just the public who were able to track and read about the debate using Twitter. A relatively small but significant number of MPs leading opposition to the Bill, including Eric Joyce, Tom Watson and Evan Harris, were using Twitter to engage with both constituents and opponents of the Bill during the debate.

Arguably, this sort of direct engagement, where members of the public are able to inform and shape MPs thinking on an issue of legislation is radical in the current professionalised world of lobbying. That this grassroots lobbying took place during a parliamentary debate and in real-time is perhaps a glimpse of what a more direct, Internet-enabled form of democracy might look like.

This glimpse didn’t go unnoticed by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, who noted on his blog that the #DEBill’s Twitter backchannel had 'a real sense that many people outside were connecting with the Parliamentary process for the first time'.

But as suggested above, the #DEBill debate on Twitter served an equally mportant role in influencing public attitudes towards politicians, Parliament and democracy in general. More specifically, it's possible to argue that the #DEBill debate presented the UK’s parliamentary democracy and politicians in a negative light, while at the same time portraying certain, tech-savvy MPs positively.

From a negative perspective, early in the debate a Twitter user took a photograph of a wide-angle shot of the Chamber shown on BBC Parliament’s coverage. The image reveals a largely empty House of Commons which clearly paints a highly unflattering picture of the seat of democracy. Of course, within minutes this image was widely shared via Twitpic.

The image generated outrage online as it appeared to reinforce the lack of interest in both the Bill and democratic process as a whole as, according to many, the Bill’s timing was deliberately scheduled to ensure it was rushed through Parliament with minimum oversight. Sample comments left on the Twitpic image suggest wide-spread contempt for Parliament and politicians:

 “Isn't it ironic how we're lambasted by MP's for not caring and not showing up to vote? Maybe they should lead by example...” -

 "'Democracy live' ... No, I think it just passed away." -

As the image was spread around the Internet similar comments emerged and led to many others questioning the number of MPs required for Parliament to be quorate and whether the current figure needs to be reviewed.

Meanwhile one user tallied up the visible number of MPs present to estimated the total percentage of MPs attending. According to the website Didmympbotherttoturnup, created in the hours after the debate, a mere 3% of MPs took part in the debate. This is in stark contrast to the 20,000 emails sent to MPs by the public lobbying them to attend.

Conversely, MPs who were engaging with the public via Twitter received support and personal thanks – both from constituents and non-constituents. In fact, one person went as far as creating a site that mapped the constituencies of MPs that voted against the Bill and who are standing for re-election. The site states its aim clearly:

“If you opposed the Digital Economy bill and want to say thank you, you may want to consider voting for them if they are your constituency MP (having made sure you are registered to vote in time for May 6). Alternatively if you can't vote for them, but are a member of their party you may wish to consider helping them get re-elected by canvassing or volunteering for their campaign. It's your choice."

Interestingly, if the image of an almost empty Parliament has become the negative meme for the #DEBill, a counter-image of tech-savvy MPs as saviours for democracy has also emerged.

Labour MP for West Bromich, Tom Watson, spear-headed the opposition to the Bill, breaking the Party whip in doing so. This image showing Tom updating what appears to be his Twitter feed mid-debate, was shared via Twitpic and tweeted widely.

Owing to his outspoken opposition to the Bill and his personal sacrifices in ensuring the Bill met with as much opposition as possible Tom can be seen as perhaps the first cross-party, cross-consitituency single-issue MP committed to championing authenticity and transparency with politics and parliamentary democracy.

About Simon Collister

Simon is Head of Nonprofit and Public Sector at We Are Social. He wil be guest blogging for us on topics related to the 2010 British general election campaign.

Mumsnet, the general election and single-issue campaigning

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet, spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet. Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties. Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

About Simon Collister

Simon is Head of Nonprofit and Public Sector at We Are Social. He wil be guest blogging for us on topics related to the 2010 British general election campaign.

Flat Earth News: robots.txt

After becoming thoroughly absorbed by the fascinating insights in 'Flat Earth News' by Nick Davies, I can affirm that the book has greatly served to improve my critical understanding of news production.


The book, in his own words, 'names and exposes the national news stories which turn out to be pseudo events manufactured by the PR industry and the global news stories which prove to be fiction generated by a new machinery of international propaganda.' The main thrust of the book details how growing commercial pressures on media producers have radically changed the role of journalists, limiting their role to that of 'churnalists' who simply no longer have the time to do their jobs properly.


Critical reviews of the book itself have focussed on some errant instances of the author's interpretation of the data he collected with the help of researchers from Cardiff University, and more strongly, out-and-out refutations from journalists working for the newspapers mentioned.


My reading is that while indeed Mr Davies goes after his targets with a ruthless polemic, the sheer volume of evidence collected from a myriad of sources involved in the industry suggests that he has correctly identified the main narrative which describes a true crisis in our mass-media.


I guess you'll have to read it to believe it.. and then?



And then you read a BBC News Online story linking the new Obama administration's dedication to 'openness' with a change in the robots.txt file (which tells search engines how to index content on websites) on the server. Auntie goes with the angle 'By contrast, after eight years of government the Bush administration was stopping huge swathes of data from being searchable.'


Alas, this is a piece of Flat Earth News. This particular news-nugget appeared earlier on the BoingBoing blog, where commentators correctly explained that the old robots.txt file merely prevented the indexing of duplicate text-only versions (along with some other technical fixes).


It seems that while the most cursory fact-checking would have revealed this, it just goes too well with the prevailing narrative of the new administration. Davies talks in particular about how BBC News Online journalists are given 15 minutes or so to get an article up from it appearing on wire services, and how in many cases only one source is used.


While this particular instance may seem insignificant, Davies explains how the commercial pressures placed on journalists working today have enabled errors, some with much more important ramifications than this, to become commonplace in our mass media.

New Political Communication Unit announces major new ESRC-funded research project: Political violence in the new media ecology

New Political Communication Unit researchers Ben O'Loughlin and Akil Awan, along with colleague Andrew Hoskins at the University of Warwick, are set to begin work on a new Economic and Social Research Council funded project investigating the impact of new media on the new security environment in the post-9/11 age: Legitimising the discourses of radicalisation: Political violence in the new media ecology.

The two-year project, funded by a grant of £291,000, will treat the idea of 'legitimacy' as central to the development of and support for radicalising views and terrorist acts. This includes the ways in which these are represented in the news media and the apparent ease and speed with which those that espouse and carry out political violence can attract global media attention, and thus 'access' to audiences and the potential to influence policy-makers. These trends have been considerably accelerated with the advent of so-called 'new media', and particularly the Internet, which cheaply and effectively facilitates the organisation of groups and 'networks'. This is particularly the case with 'Web 2.0' which is the 'second generation' of internet services such as social networking sites that enable online collaboration and sharing among users.

The research will investigate the nature of radicalising discourses in Web 2.0 and how these and acts of political violence broadcast on the web are supported and 'legitimated'. This includes exploring how the acts themselves and explanations for them on the web are 'picked up' and represented in the mainstream television news media, through the journalistic and editorial uses of words, phrases, graphics, images, videos and so on. We will look at how interpretations of this term 'radicalisation' are shaped by news representations through investigating audience responses, understandings and misunderstandings.

The researchers will use and develop the latest methodologies and conceptual approaches to media research. Mapping and analysing communications across Web 2.0 and mainstream media, across languages, and across social contexts, presents difficult challenges, and the research will draw on research networks inside and outside of academia to utilise cutting edge analytical techniques in the field.

This research emerges out of a previous project: Shifting Securities: News Cultures Before and Beyond the 2003 Iraq War. Shifting Securities identified a 'growing securitisation of everyday life' in Britain where there is a great deal of mistrust and suspicion between policymakers, journalists, and citizens/news audiences, amplified through media coverage of security issues and events. Key to this are debates about the 'legitimacy' of the different groups involved and particularly concerning the aims and prosecution of the 'War on Terror'. The research will be of interest to policymakers, media organisations, academic researchers and civil society organisations. The project website will be launched in September 2007. Preliminary findings will be made available in July 2008, and a closing conference will be held in autumn 2009.