Tweeting to the boys: Social media is just as male and stale as the rest of politics
Once again, a handful of sensationalising journalists have proclaimed this to be the first true social media election. I’ve explained before it isn’t, and for a whole load of reasons but mostly because social media is just one channel, one tool. That stands. But the increasing influence and importance of social media within the wider electoral campaign context does matter and it’s worth talking about. As Sophy Ridge argued in the Telegraph recently, women are turning away from online politics. We already see significant gender disparities in traditional politics. From candidates to MPs to Ministers, the senior ranks of British politics remain largely male, middle class and white. It’s supposed to be a representative democracy, so how is this acceptable?
Back in 2011 I did some research that looked at the gender balance in political blogs and it was clear then that this was a male domain Many people have argued too that the internet is a male domain but I don’t believe that’s really the case, certainly it is increasingly less so. Yet politics online remains very male dominated. As I said, the barrier to inclusion isn’t digital, it’s political.
Taking the premise that social media matters in the 2015 campaign (and the amount of money being spent on it by the parties suggests it does) and that this channel has always appeared to be overly male and, worse still, is putting women off, I thought it was worth doing a very quick analysis of political influence on Twitter.
This wasn’t highly scientific research, I used an independent ratings service that looks at a range of factors to determine influence. What I found echoes what I saw back in 2011, that online political communication is the domain of men. No surprise there but what is more interesting to see is that the strongest influencers are not politicians but journalists.
Forty-six out of the top 100 political influencers or Twitter were journalists, 26 were bloggers or political commentators outside the formal media and only 25 were politicians (the remaining three are institutions). In terms of the top 10 influencers, Ed Miliband might be pleased that he’s the only active politician (oddly David Miliband is in there too), the rest are either journalists or commentators (so, if you want to be cynical, would-be journalists or politicians!). None of them are women. The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff was the highest ranked woman at 24 and women make up only 12 of the top 100 influencers. Sixty-six are men and the rest institutions (eg a collective Twitter feed for a newspaper or other media organisation).
As I said, this is not particularly exhaustive research, however my instinct is that I could have cut this a number of ways and ended up with the same conclusion: Political social media is a male domain.
I think too that there’s a strong suggestion (borne out by other work I and others have done) that the purpose of Twitter is to influence the media, not the public directly. And the pre-dominance of journalists and commentators suggests that indeed the impact on the public is largely second-hand. So it’s interesting to exclude group accounts and see that only 15% of the journalists amongst the influencers are women. Interesting too that this figure rises to 29% for the politicians.
Are women politicians relatively more likely to see social media as an important channel because they are less likely to feel that they have a direct voice in the media, even if this is a medium that turn women off politics? If so, is there an opportunity to reframe the use of social media so it’s focused on real conversations directly with the public?