Twitter Joke Trial and what it means for politics

So Paul Chambers has been granted leave to appeal to the High Court over his Twitter Joke conviction, and the hearing should take place sometime between March and June next year.

Just to refresh your memory, the whole farago started when Mr Chambers – commenting on disruption at his local airport – said this on Twitter:

“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

I don’t particularly want to rehash all of the arguments here – I’ve not really seen a sensible one that argues that Chambers deserved the prosecution – but Graham Linehan is quoted making a very interesting point over at the Index on Censorship blog:

“The Twitter joke trial is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who “get it”, and the people who don’t…… from what I understand, much of the Twitter joke trial has involved trying to communicate to judge and prosecution what Twitter actually is. And if they don’t understand it, then how can they be trusted to make proportionate, reasonable or just decisions about it?”

Over the past few years, all kinds of claims have been made about how social media changes politics and government, and that there are plenty of ways that the sociology of government could/should change every bit as much as the retail sector in response to new forms of communication. Following @SirBonar on Twitter is a good way of getting a view on how public management types have addressed these tools as a new opportunity for bureaucratic job-creation schemes efficiency task forces.

But what about politicians? The hive mind on Twitter tends to the view that they just don’t get it man! Certainly, a lot of the main UK political parties output has been geared around the notion that social media offers a range of new broadcast channels rather than one huge multi-faceted interactive tool. The Tories did a lot with expensive Google AdWords in the General Election and Labour were quite effective using virtual phone-banks to get some canvassing activity out of a fairly demoralised activist-base. But, as Mark Pack noted here on Slugger a while back, 2010 was, in some ways, the first real TV election rather than one in which it was the Facebook wot won it.

My own view on this, expressed more fully elsewhere, is that the withdrawal of people like Iain Dale illustrates that politicians are behaving very rationally as individuals in being very cautious users of social media. But is politics as a whole doing itself any favours by staying away from this space?

The obvious missed opportunities are widely seen as being the chance to be more in touch. To disintermediate cynical journalists, to be more agile in the way that they respond to a reaction-hungry public, to crowdsource policy responses, and so on. If there is a reason for the political class as a whole is to make this step, it has to first overcome the blockage of reticent individual politicians.

But Linehan’s observation underlines what the bigger question is: It’s not the one around social media as an optional instrument to change the conduct of elected representatives. It’s more the understanding that these tools change everything. In many cases, you can no longer sit on any kind of parliamentary committee and address many policy issues without understanding how a more networked and articulate public can disrupt any decisions you make.

To avoid using these tools is to avoid the country you live in. I’ve discussed this with hundreds of Councillors in Northern Ireland at various stages, and a common theme is that, because there is a large slice of the population that doesn’t use these tools, to do so is almost to connive in some kind of digital disenfranchisement!

As Trotsky put it: “You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” It’s a lesson that the political class need to internalise. You didn’t get where you are today by knowing this. You may not have the stomach to use it. But life is going to get a good deal worse for you until you have some practical experience of how it works.

Anyhoo: Here’s the whole thing explained in seasonal terms (h/t Teresa Pearce)