Political Censorship in the Twittersphere: It’s all about Social Identity Ownership

I am a huge advocate of Politicians using Twitter to engage and interact with their constituents and country-folk. Accessibility to our politicians is often at arms length, between several layers of advisors and a forest of paperwork. Twitter allows instantaneous access and more often than not, a quick reply sans spin doctors. It also gives the public an often rare and uncensored insight into the person that is a politician.

Today I read with interest, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s warning to his party:

“British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned his Conservative MPs not to air their grievances about the party’s dismal poll ratings and his leadership on Twitter, reports say … (telling) Tory MPs they risked damaging their prospects for the 2015 general election. According to the Daily Mail newspaper, Mr Cameron’s office said backbenchers were “participants, not commentators” after a string of what it called “distracting” comments on the social media website” via @TheAge

“Participants … not commentators.”

Which begs the question: at what point does free speech as a ‘participant’ and professional liability as a ‘commentator’ collide?

Many workplaces have policies in place effectively preventing employees from being both participant and commentator. As a result, millions of Twitter accounts are littered with #AllViewsAreMyOwn caveats in an attempt (by employers) to negate any vicarious liability responsibilities. But herein lies the quandary: when the Twitter @user is a notable member of the public, such as in the case of Politicians, the line between party allegiance and personal brand identity is blurred. If you are @SenatorCitizen or @YourLocalMP who ‘owns’ your Twitter account and therefore your ‘views’?

The party you are aligned to?

You as an individual?

The law surrounding these issues is still in it’s infancy; in the Corporate sector this is a major risk to brands whose identity is tied to a ‘person’ as opposed to an ‘entity’.

Read: Company Social Media Accounts — Who Owns Those Twitter Followers? via @forbes

As politics has evolved to encompass and exploit social media, consideration must be given to the ownership of what are essentially ‘party identities’ as a significant risk factor in public disclosure. Ponder for a moment a scenario, that while remote, is entirely possible:
  • @PartyMP becomes unhappy with their political allegiance and they leave the party; becoming @IndependantMP.
  • They take their substantial Twitter following with them.
  • They used to Tweet the party status quo.
  • They now actively oppose that status quo, Tweeting a change in view to their audience.

Sure – some of their audience will unfollow and leave. But others, who share the same views and perhaps some sympathy about the circumstances of their exit has been elicited, will stay. Where public profile equals influence, the risk of an MP going rogue as an Independent is real. Their voice is then effectively outside the confines of any overarching policy preventing them from speaking off party topic. In marginal seats, this influence could cost a political party a seat. In seats that swing, without combative counter-social strategy, a political party again faces the risk of losing a seat.

Over the past decade in Australia, the United Kingdom and United States,  minority Governments have been a harsh political reality. The numbers are so delicately balanced that losing one seat, one vote – could mean being effectively unable to govern.

Can political parties afford to be asleep at the Twitter-Wheel any longer?

Absolutely not.

They need to get their social strategy and policies in order, taking corporate ownership of their brand (via individual identity) and retain the balance of power in the social sphere regardless of who is driving the political Tweet-Train. Devolving ownership of a politician’s identity to that individual means they essentially own their social streams and are free to use them, or walk away with them, as they wish.

Just as brands and corporations have learnt the hard way not to leave the keys to Twitter with disgruntled or soon-to-be-ex employees, political parties need to savvy up on social-identity ownership or face the risks.
SarahWollastonMP