Aotearoa’s politicians, politics obsessives and journalists all use Twitter heaps, but does the platform matter as much as it feels like it matters? Shanti Mathias reports for IRL.
“It is a very small, boisterous family, who get together … at the Christmas dinner table and have some arguments but know each other really well,” says Chris Penk, National MP for Kaipara Ki Mahurangi. He pauses. “I didn’t think much about this metaphor, but let’s run with it.”
Penk is describing New Zealand politics twitter, aka #nzpol, where the shoes of a political commentator turned National Party operative are subject to the same scrutiny as Question Time. Overseas, Twitter is a genuine political force, credited with fomenting the Arab Spring and the US Capitol riot, but does that influence translate to Aotearoa?
Maybe, at certain times, says Henry Cooke, the chief political reporter at Stuff, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and a regular Twitter commentator with more than 18,000 followers. He cites the Jami-Lee Ross saga in 2018, when the then National MP very publicly fell out with his party on Twitter, complete with released texts and call recordings and accusations of sexual harassment, as an example of when news actually got made on Twitter.
There are other moments when New Zealand’s politics Twitter has broken into the mainstream media, such as when David Seymour tweeted a Māori-specific vaccination code. Occasionally, newspaper columnists like to get in on the so-called “culture wars” by writing about Twitter stoushes, or Chlöe Swarbrick makes headlines – and becomes an international Twitter darling – for doing something memeable like using the phrase “OK, boomer” in the House. But these examples are few and far between. For the most part, Cooke sees Twitter as a gossipy background to political events rather than the place where the action happens.
So how much impact does Twitter really have on MPs and real-world politics? And will that change in the future?
Spend enough time on New Zealand Twitter, and you will start to recognise the same names coming up over and over again. The community is small and attentive, and the posts come thick and fast: memes, analysis and criticism of policies, vague hints about what is happening behind the scenes. The combination of deep interest and small numbers creates an insularity. Within the community people know each other, or at least their online personalities, making a space for friendships to flourish and enmities to fester.
“In New Zealand, Twitter doesn’t have anything near the same market penetration it has in the States,” says Michael Daubs, a senior media studies lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington who studies social media, extremism and misinformation. He estimates about 10% of social media users in New Zealand have Twitter. “You’re talking about a really infinitesimal number of people in New Zealand who use Twitter to discuss or promote political ideas,” he says.
Users of Twitter have to keep this small population in mind. “I would never use Twitter to assess the wider population, we have polling for that,” says Cooke. Penk gives a real-world example: nobody has ever walked in his electorate office door wanting to talk about urban planning and housing density, but on Twitter, nimbys and light rail are hotly debated subjects.
Of New Zealand’s active political Twitter users, politicians themselves make up a significant portion of the demographic. As Daub points out, Twitter is not a place where the voters are. Why, then, are politicians on Twitter at all?
“I put stuff on Twitter that’s personal, like something I’ve made for lunch. It’s a way of saying to people that I’m a real live human being, with a garden and kids and a husband and food that I eat, not some kind of talking head in Wellington,” says Deborah Russell, Labour MP for New Lynn, who has around 6,500 Twitter followers.
Russell joined Twitter long before she was a politician, and sees her account as a place to engage with constituents and others less formally. “If people want me to do something as an MP, I want them to email me or to contact me through my office. [Twitter] is a little bit like going up to the supermarket in my marked up [MP] car and if someone wanders across to talk to me, that’s cool.”
In many aspects of their work, politicians are assisted by staff members who draft policy, liaise with the public and write briefings. Do politicians who are “good” at Twitter – high engagement, frequent posting – have help? “I’m still salty at my colleague Ricardo [Menéndez March, a Green list MP], who doesn’t believe I wrote the text in the comeback tweet to the National youth memes about WAP,” says Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Green Party, who has just over 30,000 Twitter followers. “I flung that tweet out like this,” she says, gesturing furiously over Zoom like she’s tapping a phone screen. “I got home and it had blown up.”
“Ricardo thinks it must have been my younger daughter who wrote that tweet, but I totally wrote it on my own,” she continues. “I fiercely protect the right to be human across all platforms, to communicate not just from a ministerial or activist political perspective but to be an ordinary human, too.”
You will never make anyone WAP with such weetbix replies. Slay better.
— Marama Davidson MP (@MaramaDavidson) September 5, 2020
Bringing personal lives to Twitter carries a risk for MPs, exposing them to the abuse the platform is known for. Features of the Twitter platform, like hashtags and trending topics, can create an environment for angry pile-ons. Does experience of online abuse change what politicians say or do on social media?
“There are things that are said about you,” Davidson says tiredly. “I don’t have any spare energy or emotional capacity whatsoever; it can be really damaging, actually.” Davidson makes liberal use of the mute button, which stops her from receiving notifications from people who trouble her.
“I see myself trending with this horrible hashtag, #UselessMarja…It is nastier than other platforms,” says Marja Lubeck, a Labour list MP based in Kaipara ki Mahurangi with 5,400 Twitter followers. But “if you’re going to get upset about abuse on Twitter, you should not be on there”.
It’s this environment that has led to Penk taking a break from Twitter. “I would rather be quite immersed in that environment then step away completely,” he says. “It’s good for my mental health, as well as the time constraints of being so fully involved.”
Twitter does have advantages for politicians. As well as being a place to show they’re human, it provides insight into the work of a politician: meetings and emails, phone calls and community events. While politicians will also post updates on Facebook or Instagram, the frequency of posting on Twitter enables “a daily register of my work”, says Lubeck. She sees Twitter as a tool of transparency, a way for people to see what politicians do outside of parliament.
“I hope that people become less cynical,” she says. “All that people ever hear is that [politicians] are untrustworthy, lazy, bottom of the ladder, and I hope to dispel some of those myths around our work and show that we – well, most of us – are genuine, hardworking people.”
The brevity of Twitter, which only allows posts of 280 characters or less, is suited to the rhythms of political life. “Politicians have a lot of random two minutes in time where they’re waiting for something to happen, which is the perfect Twitter use space,” says Cooke.
While the transparency of Twitter is useful, politicians are busy: is social media a vital part of their job, or a distraction from it? “I’m not on it constantly, I have a job to do,” says Russell.
“[Twitter] is a responsibility,” says Davidson. She sees social media as a way to be accessible to the people she represents, and will answer DMs and reply to comments when she can. “It’s important to engage and listen to people’s voices.”
David Seymour, Act leader and MP for Epsom, has 23,000 Twitter followers, but doesn’t put much of his life online, or use the platform to engage with constituents. He has mostly left the running of his Twitter account to staff, only logging in every month or so. While his account mostly carries Act Party press releases, it is the other content which breaks through: aggressive comebacks to Winston Peters, or, controversially, vaccination codes meant for Māori.
Are these tweets written by Seymour, or a staffer? He isn’t clear, defaulting to the plural pronoun. “We did put [the Māori vaccination codes] on all our social platforms, [because] most if not all of our media releases go on Twitter.”
With a press-release focused account, does Seymour still get abused? “I feel sorry for people who, lacking any kind of persuasive ability, choose to personally attack and belittle other people,” he says. In other words, yes. There are over a thousand replies to his tweet from September encouraging people to use Covid vaccination codes meant to prioritise Māori people, many of them furious.
Twitter isn’t terribly important, Seymour says. “I suspect most politicians take Twitter as seriously as I do, which is not at all. [It’s] far more important to knock on a street of doors and hear what real people in the real world are thinking … if you listened to what people on Twitter are saying you’d probably become a left-wing version of Advance New Zealand.”
Other politicians are less dismissive of Twitter. “I follow influential commentators … there are key Māori and Pacific women who don’t necessarily have massive platforms, but whose analysis I really rate,” Davidson says. Twitter is a place where she can engage with local and international analysis from activists and indigenous people.
Sometimes the tweet comes before the policy. “[I will] go out on Twitter strongly with those statements then go to my team [and say] ‘Here, that’s what I said, that’s our position,’” Davidson says.
But for Russell, a backbencher, it works the opposite way around. “I have lots to say about tax,” Russell says, but because of her role as the under-secretary of revenue, “I don’t say much about it on Twitter, because [people] might take it as official policy”.
While what they see on Twitter does offer ideas and insight to backbenchers Penk, Lubeck and Russell, they struggle to think of specific examples where Twitter has affected a policy. “I haven’t seen many discussions on policy [on Twitter] that lead to changed hearts and minds,” says Penk. Still, “[Twitter] allows you to have discussions with people with wildly divergent viewpoints.”
The ideal of politics is the work of listening and doing, making small changes that might have big impacts. The things that influence politics, from demographic shifts to financial markets to ideology, are often amorphous and intangible. But Twitter is visible. For those who love the sport of politics, Twitter is the sideshow: the place to replay highlight reels, disagree loudly about strategy and cheer when there are moves you agree with. Politicians, experts and the extremely online mingle and scuffle and gossip in the decontextualised deluge of the timeline.
The obsessiveness of politics-followers on Twitter does not represent the country as a whole, and politicians know this. “The great majority of New Zealanders don’t spend all day thinking about politics, they have kids to get to school and businesses to run,” Russell says. Perhaps this is an artificial distinction: many of those on Twitter run their businesses, get their kids to school and still manage to post constantly about the news.
Working as an MP can create an “echo chamber”, Lubeck says. Twitter might not be real life, but it’s a way to access the ideas and political takes of those beyond her party, which is valuable in itself. “[Twitter] is not just me putting out ideas, but also receiving them,” she says. “It acts like a sense check.”
If politics Twitter is the energetic spectators of a sports game – or perhaps a gladiator match – then political news media is the frame for the action. While researchers disagree about whether Twitter is helpful for journalists, media figures are nonetheless well-represented on the platform, and politicians often cite their presence as a reason to use Twitter. Even reluctant Tweeter Seymour admits that the platform “does serve a role as a means of rapid communication to reporters”.
Here, there is rare agreement between Seymour and Davidson. “Journalists and media hang out on [Twitter] a lot, so it is an important tool for engaging with the media,” she says.
There’s a chicken and egg situation here: are politicians on Twitter because that’s where the journalists are? Or are journalists on Twitter because politicians are? Beyond New Zealand, the influence of social media followings on media coverage are clear. For example, American Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has a whopping 12.7 million followers, is very active on Twitter. Though Ocasio-Cortez is one of 436 members of the House of Representatives, she gets widespread media coverage, whether from alarmists on Fox News, skincare fanatics on Vogue, or the widespread uptake of her calls for a Green New Deal on the Guardian. It’s a cycle: the social media presence raises her media coverage, which again feeds her follower count.
“I think it makes sense that the main reason politicians are on [Twitter] is so they know where the journalists are,” says Cooke, the political journalist. While Twitter is not representative, he finds that it provides useful insight into responses to policy. “[I] can tune in when it’s useful, and tune out when it’s not, although I should probably do a bit more of the latter.”
Daubs, the media studies lecturer, has noticed the symbiotic relationship between the media and Twitter. “Having media on Twitter is good because people can – can – get more informed [but] the bad news is [the brevity]. People don’t read that longer content, they focus on a headline…and take an entirely false perception of what the story actually says as a result.”
Whether sharing memes, reckons or links to articles, journalists, politicians and punters alike are subject to the limitations of the Twitter platform. “Social media platforms are business entities. They create a sense of agency to generate data; that data is translated into advertising algorithmic identities which are fed back to us in the form of advertisements,” Daubs says.
Social media turns attention into money. But it is also a way to interact with people who you would never overlap with otherwise, people who share your niche interests. “What Twitter does well is that it doesn’t try to be for everyone,” Cooke says. The structure of Twitter leads people towards those who post about similar topics, whether that is politics, anime, or trains.
Politics Twitter might not be important in the grand scheme of things – after all, New Zealand’s most prominent politician, Jacinda Ardern, has 787,000 Twitter followers, but has only tweeted eight times since the start of 2019. Still, the commentary and discussion that happens on Twitter is, at the very least, useful to policy makers; Cooke notes that lots of public servants use Twitter. Even Ardern “lurks”. “I’ve been with her and she’s referred to tweets that happened earlier in the day,” he says.
Those public servants and politicians on Twitter might use the platform because they’re human, which means they’re not immune to hot gossip or obsessive conversation about the things that shape their lives. On Twitter, public figures are subject to the same limitations and opportunities that the platform offers everyone else: exposure to abuse, the potential to go viral, and the ability to follow people from around the world. Politicians’ senses of what is important on or off Twitter will be shaped by what they pay attention to, like any other human engaging with a platform designed to demand attention to create lucrative data.
Measuring the influence this attention has is difficult, if not impossible; Daubs says the only way to quantify how social media shapes reality is with long-term, ideally ethnographic studies.
Will Twitter will stick around? “If I knew the future of Twitter, I would not be an academic, I would be an investor and make money for a change,” Daubs says wryly, but points to how demographics of Twitter, while niche, are spread evenly across age groups. He doesn’t think politicians, at least in New Zealand, will ever find Twitter an effective place to wield influence, but he says the platform has an unlikely longevity.
New Zealand’s politics Twitter might not be a gladiatorial political arena where policy fights policy, gasping and bloody. Instead, it’s everyone’s panopticon: the place where politicians turn to each other and their audiences, some supportive, some furious, most contradictory, all bristling with feedback. On Twitter, everyone is watching, ready to offer their own opinions on what politicians are doing and how they do it.