13/04/2015 07:46 BST | Updated 10/06/2015 06:59 BST

How We Talk About Immigration on Twitter

Social media is a new arena for political debate, which allows people to comment on the issues they care about and to interact with those who have the power to affect change. A growing section of the public are using these platforms to take part in the public conversation about what is an increasingly contentious issue: immigration. But just how representative are the debates on Twitter about the topic - and how much can Twitter be seen as a gauge of public opinion? These are some of the issues we have explored in our new report on how immigration is discussed on Twitter.

Take the Immigration Bill, which passed into law last year. We collected tweets around the time of the second reading of the Immigration Bill in the Commons. We found a lively relationship between parliament and people who cared about immigration - both interest groups and individuals acting on their own. There were 1,724 tweets that were coming from parliament, either from MPs themselves or from committees set up within. This compared with 2,771 tweets that were in some sense lobbying parliament in an attempt to shape both the bill and the discourse.

What's more, we noticed that the conversation was very much against the Immigration Bill with nearly 50 per cent critical in tone while only 2 per cent were in favour. The contrast with conventional attitudes research is stark - in 2013, 56 per cent thought immigration levels needed to be drastically reduced while 89 per cent supported denying unemployment benefits to migrants in their first three months here. Given the difference between the critical tone of the Twitter conversation and the position of the wider public on immigration, it is hard to imagine politicians being swayed by the Twitter noise.

It's not a perfect platform of course, but by studying how immigration is discussed on Twitter we were also able to learn something about the relationship between politicians, the media, and the general public. We collected all the tweets in response to an article by David Cameron where he outlined his government's plans on immigration reform. What we observed was how a politician could use the traditional media to launch a conversation on the new social media. Initially Twitter began by reporting Cameron's article but then a critical discussion took over. However, often the discussion was critical of the prime minister and supportive of immigration. We also collected tweets around New Year 2014 when the transitional controls on Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in the UK were lifted. This was not a discussion about immigration per se but rather a response to what Twitter users took to be alarmist reporting in the newspapers. Much of the response was devoted to mocking the press with many jokes made about Wombles and Uncle Bulgaria.

Immigration is discussed on Twitter with politicians, traditional media outlets, as well as the general public all taking part, responding to, and feeding of each other. Social media allows people to have their say on the subject of immigration and that's a good thing. Politicians and voters can connect with each other and there needs to be more of this. But we must handle the views expressed here with caution as they are not necessarily reflective of the population as a whole.