Since the last election the use of the UK's leading micro-blogging platform has exploded amongst Parliamentarians. New research by westminsterpa.com finds that between 29 July 2013 and 28 July 2014 MPs spent an astonishing 115+ days sending Tweets, posting a total of 426,406 original Tweets and re-Tweeting a further 292,025. That's without adding up the time that the 461 MPs on Twitter will have spent browsing the site. The question is whether this is a good or bad spend of our elected representatives' time?
It is legitimate to question whether spending so long on the site is a good use of taxpayers' money and whether it's the most effective way for them to stand up for their constituents. But in my view Twitter has resulted in making MPs more accessible and more visible. An MP on Twitter can be a (largely) free agent; voicing opinion, engaging in debate, talking to constituents and posting mandatory photos of pets, canvassing trips and village fetes. This has a number of important effects, all of which are important for democracy.
Firstly, a candid Twitter account is humanising. When an MP, Lord or PPC uses Twitter to share their experiences, rather than just parroting the party line and sharing boring infographics, it shows that they are in fact real people, who are just as frustrated by late trains, or pleased about their team winning, or obsessed by the weather as everyone else. Secondly, and directly linked to this, Twitter can also be very revealing, and this comes with benefits and risks.
Twitter gives the opportunity for politicians to not only nail their colours to the mast, but also put a nail in their coffins at the same time. For example, a number of ill-judged tweets from MPs such as Diane Abbott, David Ward and Michael Fabricant have led to party-prompted apologies. However, the fact that these remarks were made over Twitter allows the public to make their own judgement over the opinions of their representatives, showing what they truly believe, something which would have not readily been apparent previously.
There are other ways that Twitter constitutes a risk to MPs, and many should be applauded for sticking their head above the parapet, and opening themselves up to vile abuse at the hands of 'trolls'. The best example is this the campaign by Stella Creasy, and others, for a woman to be featured on the reverse of the new £10 note, and her fortitude in response to the abuse she received via social media, which won her praise, exposure and widespread support.
Finally, Twitter is accessible. Before the advent of the internet, the only way to see your MP was to go to a surgery, lobby them in Parliament, or accost them in the street. Now people can, and do, take their MP to task via Twitter, soliciting a more immediate answer than could ever previously have been achieved.
Overall, the increased use of Twitter by MPs can only be good, and indeed it is more shocking that over 180 MPs, and many more Lords, are still not using it. Parliamentarians are usually the first to jump at free publicity and Twitter, if done well, can be the very best.