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The Politics of Twitter

Shifting sands or a tool that is here to stay? Photo courtesy of Rosaura Ochoa/flickr

Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign may still be the benchmark for the use of social media tools in politics, but some surprising new actors are embracing Twitter in particular in an effort to reach out to voters and citizens in a more personal and immediate way.

While leaders of ‘old Europe’ still seem quite reluctant to use the service (David Cameron, in his pre-prime minister days, once famously blurted out that “too many twits [it’s tweets, David] might make a twat”), politicians in South Asia are embracing the service as a means of reaching a very large number of citizens, very quickly.

Among them, Shashi Tharoor, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and member of parliament, who tweets several times a day, even using his stream to respond to constituent concerns. He has also run into trouble for his tweets. Although this may have given his follower numbers a boost, the ability to reach and interact with 825,000+ followers in such a dynamic and instant way is a feat in itself and a potentially powerful tool for governance in an unwieldy country like India.

Why have leaders in the West not embraced this new form of instant interaction? Do they fear that they may say something unwise, even controversial on a service that is anything but forgiving in its immediacy, or do they fear the barrage of responses they may get to an unpopular comment? While Silvio Berlusconi’s PR people might have made a wise choice in keeping him from the service, it could prove powerful in narrowing the divide between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’ and in making politics more relevant to millions of politically apathetic young people.

This kind of ‘connection’ seems to be what President Medvedev is seeking with his personal, sometimes (unintentionally) cooky tweets in English (comfortably shifting between ‘serious’ comments on policy and pictures of him posing with a political ‘buddy’, most recently Berlusconi.) He is undoubtedly also trying to reach out to an international audience that sees the Russian administration as increasingly insular. Putin will probably not join anytime soon though, leaving Medvedev alone in his quest to be liked.

Mohamed El-Baradei, a rising threat to Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, on the other hand, is using the service to rally young people to his movement. In a country with a dynamic, large and long-suppressed youth, many with access to services such as Twitter, this seems like a wise, even necessary, strategy.

But Twitter has its problems, chief among them legitimacy and the verifiability of the instant, bite-sized tweets. Pranksters of all persuasions have made use of this with fake profiles for David Miliband, for example, providing comedy to the masses and a headache to his PR team. In positioning himself for the upcoming Labor Party leadership election, Mr Miliband has however embraced the service in an official capacity, making it an active avenue for communication with his base and with potential voters.

But will his commitment to tweeting last beyond this maiden flight and will other European politicians soon follow suit in the hopes of reaching out to the virtual masses on a mass scale?

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