A new way to engage? Obama’s ‘Twitter townhall’ comes to Australia

Can social media temper growing public antipathy towards political parties? Mandel Ngan/AFP

On Tuesday, the ACT government held Australia’s first virtual community cabinet using Twitter. Four ministers faced a barrage of tweets in an hour long question and answer session held with the electorate, all in the name of greater civic engagement.

We talked with University of Canberra journalism lecturer and social media expert, Julie Posetti, about what online town hall meeting could mean for participatory democracy.

US president Barack Obama conducted a ‘Twitter town hall’ before, but this is the first of its kind in Australia, do you think this could become the new norm for political engagement?

I certainly think there’s a natural affinity with audience engagement and Twitter – it’s appealing for its brevity and clarity. And during the Q&A quite a few people asked serious questions of the [ACT legislative assembly] cabinet ministers about local issues that were important to them.

Many of the contributors to the discussion were in fact very new to Twitter: they had fresh accounts, with only a few followers and a few tweets.

I don’t necessarily think Twitter is the be all and end all, but I do think generally that social media engagement between politicians and electorates and the media as well – that’s a trend that’s here to stay.

This was a very grassroots exercise in participatory democracy – it was four cabinet members talking directly to citizens and interacting with them, as long as the promise to follow-up with more detailed responses comes, then I think this is going to serve as a catalyst for more of this kind of exercise in participatory democracy, between journalists, citizens and politicians.

Of course, public meeting politics is not a new concept – it’s just this is happening in a way that can involve more people observing and participating more widely.

I think it’s extremely promising; we just need to keep adapting to the technology and learning from each exercise.

Is Twitter too select a group for these kinds of exercises to work? Were there diverse views?

The only research I’ve seen on Twitter users, which was from the UK and is a little bit dated now, indicated Twitter users tend to be more politically engaged and active around social issues, as well as small “l” liberal.

That research was looking at a small sample in the UK, but what I think is interesting is with the exercises like this one, it attracted a wide range of different Twitter users. I think there certainly were diverse perspectives that were being expressed among the 700 or so tweets between 12.30 and 1.30 Tuesday.

There were questions about public transport – the absence of it and the inadequacy of it – and to see that issue being directly put to the four politicians who fronted up for this experiment was interesting.

The Twitter users were putting their concerns to the ministers but a few also expressed positive views about government policy and I saw one tweet about being grateful for the standard of care in Canberra hospitals. Some people will take the piss, of course, and one tweeter asked the minister what he should eat for lunch, but generally people asked serious questions about local issues.

Are people too cynical these days for these kinds of interactions with politicians, regardless of the medium?

Several Twitter users responded earlier in the day with cynicism, saying they weren’t sure that it was the right mode. I myself expressed a degree of trepidation about whether this would work. But I think in the end, it was actually quite an interesting exercise.

I suppose politicians can’t do too much spin in 140 characters?

It was quite clear they were having difficulty resorting to spin. And Canberra politics is awash with spin, possibly even more than federal politics. The brevity and speed of questions coming from over 200 tweeters required them to provide a quick answer with clarity, and so these responses were more direct and less flowery than most political answers.

I actually found it to be a more meaningful kind of exercise in political communication than television news sound bites for example.

Many in the media and in the public seem to have embraced Twitter for political information, but have the politicians? And if they don’t, can social media really be an effective forum for political issues?

It’s an important question, especially in the Australian setting. We saw political journalists adopting Twitter – they were among the trailblazers using social media for journalistic practice very early on.

Initially, in terms of political conversation there were a lot of interactions between journalists, citizens and bloggers, but far fewer politicians involved.

By the first spill of [the 2009 Liberal party leadership change], there were some more meaningful interactions between politicians but there were still only a few key figures involved – Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Kevin Rudd.

So I think it takes leadership from politicians to encourage others to get involved. And with critical mass, as was the case with journalists, more will come to the party.

Could these kinds of exercises help people to become more interested in politics?

I think so. Citizens want to have a voice and be heard, they want to effect change. Of course, they want to complain too but they want to correct the public record; they want to share information that might help others.

And so there is still a real sense of civic duty motivating many of the people who pick up the phone and go to air.

Now the benefit of unmediated social media platforms is that many more people can participate and there’s a lower barrier for entry because if you have a broad accent, or if you have a stutter, or you have a lack of confidence about being heard on radio, it’s much easier to just open a Twitter account.

Of course, that raises issues around anonymity and pseudonymity and whose voice we take seriously and whose do we not, but as a society more generally we’re navigating these issues anyway.

People don’t actually want to be cynical about politics, but the age of spin and mainstream media’s failure to cover politics in a way that satisfies the populous is a problem.

And politicians find social media attractive in part because they can avoid the media, but what they will find I suspect is an increasingly media-literate public that is quite willing to put very hard questions to them in a way that can’t be erased.

So I hope it raises the bar of accountability, too.