tweeting

Corbyn on Twitter: (S)he did not tweet, (s)he does not care!

5 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
26/11/2019

Since Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016, Twitter has become a crucial tool for waging politics. Yes, of course, Twitter was used by politicians prior to Mr. Trump's extraordinarily prolific use of the medium. But since the 2016 Trump campaign, Twitter moved from a relatively peripheral position to center stage in the field of political communication. Two recent tweets by Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn illustrate this shift.

Corbyn on Twitter: (S)he did not tweet!

On November 22, in the middle of his UK general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn launched two tweets in rapid succession. The first tweet was on Tory Leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

Corbyn tweet on Johnson

The second tweet was about Jo Swinson, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats:

Corbyn tweet on Swinson

Both tweets are identical in message. Corbyn exposes his main political opponents' failure to tweet about voter registration, and imputes motives to them: Johnson doesn't want people to vote while Swindon (whose party was in a coalition government with the Tories) tries to avoid a backlash from "people saddled in debt from university" who might register to vote. 

Leading politicians should tweet about the importance of voter registration, and not tweeting about this topic means that they have no interest in it.

There is a clear normative backdrop to these tweets. Corbyn suggests that leading politicians should tweet about the importance of voter registration, and that not tweeting about this topic means that they have no interest in it. Appeals to voter registration through Twitter are defined as normal in this frame, and failures to make such appeals is morally condemned - a sure sign of disdain for the electorate, of bad conscience, or even of a cunning plan to keep the electorate small and biased in one's favor. A small behavioral feature - not tweeting about something - is made to stand for very big features of character and political position.

Doesn't she care?

Of course, the evidence gathered by Corbyn is, to put it mildly, rather flimsy and circumstantial. Johnson and Swindon may have used different channels for making appeals to voter registration, or other people in their party apparatus may have done so on Twitter. Or both may have tweeted about the issue, but in terms different from those used in Corbyn's search command. The fact that neither explicitly tweeted about voter registration, in exactly these terms, cannot be seriously taken to imply that Johnson and Swindon do not care about the issue, and neither can it be used as persuasive evidence for judging their characters.

After all, what does Twitter represent? Recent statistics show that about one out of five UK citizens have Twitter accounts: 14,1 million to be precise. This is less than half of the 36 million Facebook accounts in the UK. Note that, in the US, Mr Trump's tweetstorms also hit just 24% of the social network users. Only WhatsApp and Reddit show lower figures, while YouTube (73%) and Facebook (69%) score much higher. In terms of size, Twitter is amazingly peripheral in the world of social media.

Tweeting isn't really communicating to 'the masses': it is communicating to a specific range of audiences.

But there is a qualitiative issue. Twitter users tend to have higher-than-average educational and income features and are, on average, younger than for instance Facebook users. And it is a forum for opinion makers and influencers: about 10% of US Twitter users produce over 80% of all tweets, creating a peculiar, and quite powerful, mass medium usage profile. So, while Twitter remains small in terms of numbers, it is big in terms of impact. 

The point here is that tweeting isn't really communicating to 'the masses': it is communicating to a specific range of audiences, many of which are likely to be quite politically conscious - and, consequently, registered as voters. This, too, weakens Corbyn's claims: Twitter is hardly the best or most effective medium for launching appeals to register to vote, so not using it for that purpose cannot reasonably be seen as having the implications Corbyn draws regarding Johnson's and Swindon's character or politican intentions.

The Twitter standard

So what Corbyn's tweets demonstrate is the way in which Twitter has become an extremely important political platform. It's on Twitter that politics is communicated, and that is where it has to be communicated. Politicians, so it seems, have to be active on Twitter, and their actions on Twitter (or the absence thereof) are consequential. Twitter has become a standard forum for political communication. And not too many politicians and opinion makers appear to disagree with that.

The fact that Twitter is hardly a 'democratic' forum where the majority of populations can be addressed doesn't really cause concern, for those who matter are all on Twitter.

That is why Corbyn's claims - while almost ludicrous from the perspectives sketched above - gain plausibility: they are less about the actual issue of voter registration than about the norms of contemporary political conduct. Politicians are expected to display their agendas and points of view on Twitter, constantly and comprehensively. If they fail to do so, they fail as politicians - this is Corbyn's real point, the logic within which the absence of tweets on a particular topic can be expanded to sweeping judgments of politicians' character and intentions. The fact that Twitter is hardly a 'democratic' forum where the majority of populations can be addressed doesn't really cause concern, for those who matter are all on Twitter.

Twitter systematically fights above its weight in the field of politics. This small and, in the eyes of many, clumsy medium has rapidly established itself as the place where politics is played out. Yes, it took someone of Donald Trump's size to take it to that level of prominence. But the fact that Jeremy Corbyn uses it in the way we have witnessed here shows that this prominence has become part and parcel of contemporary political culture, and of the default communicative economies that characterize politics today. It has become compelling and compulsory for politicians. There is no sign yet that this process will be soon reversed.