The vexed issue of politicians on Twitter – is it really them?

malmström-barrosoI’ve never met European Commission for Trade Cecilia Malmström in person. But from tweets exchanged over the years with @MalmstromEU I have some picture of what Malmström must be like as a person. From serious discussions about the implementation of Schengen (her previous Commission post was Home Affairs), via deleted tweets about TTIP, to joking about Barroso’s farewell speech (see screenshot), so I develop a picture of a straightforward and open person, someone ready to listen, and one with a sense of humour. And all of this even though I politically disagree with her. Twitter in other words allows me to separate the person from the issue to a certain extent.

The crucial issue here of course is that the tweets in question actually come from Malmström herself. No member of staff would ever dare write the tweet about Barroso and the Bye Bye Barroso bingo game!

This then is the vexing issue, and the one that I am asked so often in my training work: when a politician has a profile on Twitter, is it the politician themselves actually writing the tweets? The only way to really know this is to look out for tweets like the one written by Malmström and ask yourself “would an employee ever write this?” and if the answer is no, then you’ve probably found yourself a politician who is on Twitter themselves.

Why, you might ask, does this actually matter? As I see it, it actually matters a lot. Twitter, if used carefully, gives me a way to get a message onto a politician’s smartphone, directly, without any middleman. Were I to try to reach Malmström by e-mail, her blog, or via Facebook, I have no hope whatsoever that my message would reach her; it would be intercepted by an employee first.

From Malmström’s side it allows her to shape people’s perception of her as a politician, to communicate directly with people, and to strengthen her reputation as a person above and beyond the policy topics she has to deal with.

Malmström is of course not the only one. Although she did not write all her tweets herself, Neelie Kroes (@NeelieKroesEU) led the way in the Commission on Twitter – her Düsseldorf rant was a particular highlight. She even managed to get a standing ovation from people who disagree with her at OK Fest – much more due to her transparent means of communicating (inc. Twitter) than her actual politics.

In addition to Kroes and Malmström, my impression of a number of politicians has improved thanks to Twitter, almost entirely because they use Twitter themselves and you can feel that. In no particular order some of these are @MarietjeSchaake, @bueti, @JanAlbrecht, @Tom_Watson, @StellaCreasy, @RebHarms, @AlexStubb, @CarlBildt, @KGeorgievaEU and @AlynSmithMEP.

These characters are sadly rather the exception though. In EU politics 574 of the 751 MEPs have profiles in their own names on Twitter. In the Commission 27 of 28 Commissioners have profiles. But the majority of these fall into one of two problematic camps.

The first are politicians who tweet such tedium it is is impossible to know (or even care) if it is the politician themselves doing it. I am not sure of the benefit of Günter Oettinger’s stream of statements, or Corina Creţu’s neverending pictures of her shaking hands with people. Or the Members of the Bundestag Transport Committee who are incapable of tweeting about the subject their hearing dealt with.

The second are politicians who try to make it look like they are personable on Twitter but it seems to be a facade. Ska Keller (@SkaKeller) and Konstantin von Notz (@KonstantinNotz) are examples of this – young enough to use the technology, and mixing in a few retweets, but asking a question of these two on Twitter is like tweeting into a black hole. The same can be said for Viviane Reding; the former Comms Commissioner’s account was known to tweet in the first person while she was on her feet in the European Parliament (and without a smartphone in her hand). Staff we doing it for her.

While I of course understand that high level politicians are under massive time pressure, I nevertheless also have little time for politicians trying to give the impression of being themselves on Twitter when it is not the case. As the good examples above show, Twitter can be a powerful means to show the humanity of politicians, something that often gets lost in the media. If Twitter is too time consuming, or if the idea of actually having to listen to people is too scary, OK, but at least be honest that an account is run by office staff rather than the actual politician.

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3 comments

  1. Marco Ricorda

    Excellent post. You raised a point that the colleagues at Twiplomacy have been looking into for years now.
    Jon, what would be your recommendation to an intensive travelling politician, who wants to keep his/her digital presence active while maintaining an adequate level of personality and reliability?

  2. Adrian

    Former Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik was also very good on Twitter. Proof of which is that he has continued to tweet from the same account (with a slightly different handle) since leaving the Berlaymont. Alas, his successor is nothing but good news proclamations and self-aggrandising retweets.

  3. Stuart Bruce

    Great post Jon. I don’t know if you spotted earlier this week that I published the first draft of a Twitter Best Practice Guide for Politicians. It’s actually focused on MPs and lords as I wrote it on behalf of the CIPR at the request of the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy that was published on Monday. We’re publishing the final guide next month so it would be great to get feedback and suggestions from you. I’ll already add in a reference to this blog post, but will also credit everyone who suggests additions and recommendations. The final one will focus on politicians, rather than just MPs. You can see it and leave comments here: http://stuartbruce.biz/2015/01/best-practice-guide-for-mps-using-twitter.html