Public seminar by Daniel Allington
Starts: 16:00 15 Nov 2017
At: Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis, University of Manchester
Who follows British politicians on social media? Who stood with Ken Livingstone online? What would it be like to get all your political news from Twitter?
For over a year, I’ve been seeking answers to these questions and more using data scraping and a mixed methods approach centred on social network analysis. Social media have changed British political culture, creating quasi-celebrities out of figures who would otherwise have been condemned to the margins, and giving wide circulation to ideas long believed to be politically defunct – most alarmingly, the belief in an international conspiracy of Jews. In this seminar, I will present theoretical and methodological approaches to the large-scale study of online political culture, as well as sharing preliminary findings.
The journalist, Sam Kriss — a member of the Labour Party — has been accused of sexual harassment. So has the journalist, Rupert Myers — a member of the Conservative Party. And so, on the other side of the Atlantic, have the movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein — a supporter of the Democrats — and the TV host, Bill O’Reilly — a supporter of the Republicans. There is nothing specifically left or right wing about misogyny.
But there is something very specific indeed about the misogyny of the contemporary British Far Left: something very specific that is very specifically denied when Corbyn’s cheerleaders enthuse that ‘Corbynite slang is remarkably unproblematic in its derivation’, or insinuate — however ridiculously — that ‘centrists’ are particularly prone to transphobia, or suggest, with unintentional irony, that the real threat faced by left wing women is that of ‘centrist dads’ who ‘want to educate you and hate fuck you’. (Honestly, there’s nothing new about the sexual abuse of women on the far left by men more highly placed in the far left’s brutal hierarchy.)
Last month, I published an analysis of candidates’ public Twitter followers immediately before the General Election. As I showed, Conservative candidates tended to have more public followers than Labour candidates — but once we control for whether candidates had or had not previously been Members of Parliament, we find that Labour candidates tended to have more public followers than Conservative candidates. SNP candidates tended to have more public followers than Conservative or Labour candidates, although that finding was not statistically significant after controls because of the low numbers involved.
This does not, however, address the question of which party’s candidates had more public followers in total — nor the much more subtle question of how many of each party’s candidates’ public followers exclusively followed candidates of that party, and how many also followed candidates of other parties. To answer that question, we need to know who the candidates’ followers were. Fortunately, I do:
Just over half a year ago, the Telegraph carried out an analysis appearing to show that ‘the Labour leader’s shadow cabinet d[id]n’t have as wide a reach as their opposite numbers on Twitter’. This conclusion was arrived at by comparing ministers and shadow ministers whose roles were directly parallel: ‘[Jeremy] Corbyn has more followers than Theresa May, while Diane Abbott saw off Amber Rudd, John McDonnell beat Philip Hammond and Keir Starmer edged out David Davis’, but with regard to the others, ‘the Government enjoyed a clean sweep of the board’ (ibid.).
This is interesting, but I don’t find it satisfactory. The Conservative Party’s best known and most popular politicians were mostly in the cabinet. But while Corbyn himself remains the Labour Party’s biggest social media star, its second- and fourth-most popular MPs on Twitter were and are excluded from the shadow cabinet by virtue of not being Corbyn loyalists, while the third-most popular has technically remained a shadow cabinet member but was excluded from the Telegraph’s analysis by virtue of having no Tory opposite number.
So what happens if we look at the public followers of all prospective parliamentary candidates? This happens. (Figures collected in the week before the General Election for a different purpose and re-used here. Small parties excluded. If you want code, here’s my notebook. Hat tip to Democracy Club for its crowdsourced list of politicians’ social media accounts.)
Last month, I came out to my friends as a non-supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Since that time, I’ve been public about it in my own small way. It took me a while to admit that my party was led by someone who did not have its voters’ interests at heart, but the key moment came when I was delivering leaflets for the Labour Party’s In for Britain campaign and I ended up talking to a man who had voted both for the Labour Party under Tony Blair and for the Conservative Party under David Cameron. A man – in case this isn’t obvious – from outside my middle class bubble in which people will express solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn even while being unsure that they really agree with him, and in which there are probably more anarchists than conservatives. I picked up that he wanted a Labour Party that he could vote for again. For Jeremy Corbyn, he had two devastating words: ‘Student politics.’ Those words stuck with me.
It wasn’t just that he was a swing voter in a marginal constituency, and therefore exactly the kind of person that Labour needs to be reaching out to if it ever wants to be in government again (if it ever wants to be in government again… a point that I’ll return to).
Last month at the Open University, I not-quite-livetweeted Tim Hutchings’s excellent talk on digital bibles. Last week at King’s College London, I found myself – for the first time ever! – being livetweeted (actually livetweeted, no time delays). I’d been liveblogged before, but this was different. So forgive my gauche enthusiasm, but I can’t get over the novelty. It also formed a tidy little record of what I spoke about – as opposed to what I thought I might speak about, or what I promised to speak about. Thanks are due to everyone, but especially to Simon Rowberry.
Last Thursday, I attended Tim Hutchings’s ‘CyberBibles’ seminar, organised by Francesca Benatti for the Digital Humanities Research Network at the Open University (this is the same seminar series within which Ann Hewings and I spoke about the teaching of corpus linguistics a couple of months ago; like Ann and I, Tim is more of a social scientist than a humanist, but nobody seems to have complained so far about this dilution of things digitally humanistic). If you weren’t there, you missed a treat. On one level, this was an extraordinarily in-depth study of electronic reading and its differences from the reading of print, using a highly specific case study. On another level, the Bible will always be at the same time one of the most interesting possible case studies in textual culture and something rather more than a case study, regardless of whether you’re interested in the digital, print, or manuscript eras. On yet another level… no, this is just silly. I don’t have to say why it was an interesting topic; that should be obvious. And in any case, the current introductory preamble is in danger of overwhelming this entire blog article. Just read the rest, it won’t take long. It’s mostly tweets!
Replying, retweeting, and the acknowledgement of other people’s contributions to a conversation
I recently got involved in a discussion about the best way to acknowledge other people’s tweets while interacting on Twitter. It turned out that neither I nor the person I was talking to was absolutely sure of the implications of each of the various options available, and that while guidelines were available from Twitter itself (short version: use the buttons we made for you!), no-one seemed to have written an explanation of what each option might do to help or hinder a Twitter user in understanding and joining in a conversation that hasn’t involved him or her from the beginning. There are guides that recommend the opposite of what I – having looked into this weighty matter – consider to be the best approach, but I have no time for a flamewar right now (does anybody ever have time for a flamewar?), so I will just go ahead and explain what I think is right without attempting to refute the arguments of unnamed people who have (in my humblest of opinions) got it all wrong. The nub of the matter is twofold: the question of whether it is better to reply to a tweet by clicking the ‘Reply’ button or to reply to it by cleverly typing the tweeter’s screen name at the start of a new tweet, and the related question of whether it is better to re-distribute another person’s tweet to one’s followers by clicking the ‘Retweet’ button or by cleverly typing the letters ‘RT’ or ‘MT’ into a new tweet, adding the screen name of the original tweeter, and then copy-pasting the text of the tweet (or at least some of it) into whatever’s left of your 140-character allowance. There is then the secondary question of what difference it makes to add an additional character (conventionally a dot) to the beginning of a tweet before a person’s screen name, and whether it makes the same difference to do so after clicking ‘Reply’.