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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Has social media sped up the political process?

A couple of weeks ago Tony Abbott, Australia's prime minister, complained in the media about "electronic graffitti" when talking about the social media response to his awarding Prince Philip a knighthood in the Order of Australia. So on top of annoying practically the entire population of Australia with the knighthood, Abbott then annoyed social media users doubly by blaming them for being what they normally are - opinionated and slightly cantankerous blabbermouths.

Let's face it, it's true. Online we talk more than we should and we're not always the best source of information. My brother saw those fateful words of Abbott's, moreover, and came back with this little gem he'd written in 1998 titled Harlan Ellison versus the Crazy Yenta Gossip Line in which he discusses the way the media, itself, is not to be trusted, and how having a broad array of participating voices can at least go some way to correct the more egregious errors the media might perpetuate on any given subject and on any given day.

Now we're talking about this plethora of competing voices, it's worth looking back to a story that came out on LinkedIn (I know, that's a surprise right there) by a smart guy who specialises in talking about social media. Titled With Social Media We Are All Swinging Voters Now, the story discusses how the public sphere has changed, and points to the recent LNP (almost)-defeat in Queensland. We might better classify that event as the huge landslide to the ALP in the state. In his story, Gavin Heaton talks about influence, which is something my brother also talked about in his story.

What has changed, and what might be making the Australian political landscape so volatile now is the fact that there has been a huge increase in the quotient of voices participating in the business of influence in the country, thanks to social media. The way things are now, you only have to wait a few minutes before at least one consensus opinion emerges online about any given subject, whereas in the past it might have taken days or weeks before this could happen. It's not just the news cycle - before the journalists try to claim credit for the new paradigm - but the cycle of information generally, and as we saw yesterday with the #libspill hashtag in Australia, it only takes an hour for an issue to be thoroughly debated and tweaked in many different ways.

As Heaton says in his article, also, it's not just politicians and journalists now who are influencers, but everyday people with a Twitter account. And who are these people? Well, you'd need a university research laboratory and some heavy funding to work out where the actual influence is generated, but it's certainly possible to do, as Heaton shows briefly - albeit partially - in his story.

What's beyond doubt is that the crazy yenta gossip line is now indisputably the locus of broader community influence and, like it or not, everyone involved in the political process - from the prime minister down to the guy who serves cappuccinos in the local cafe - has to cope with a novel situation. As more and more people join social media the issue is only going to deepen, in other words the pace of political change will get faster and faster. If you don't like it, you can always set up your own hashtag and try to attract supporters. No doubt there will be a few switched-on Luddites out there ready to retweet you.

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