November’s elections for police and crime commissioners, the Electoral Reform Society have prominently pointed out, are set to have the lowest turnout of any nationwide election in modern British history.
If their prediction is correct, the ballot boxes will be graced by the lowest proportion of the adult population since the age of rotten boroughs and property enfranchisement. There is no easy solution to this democracy deficit.
Of course, formal elections, civil society consultations, and all other varieties of political outreach are all important ways – vital in fact – to realise democracy in practice. But government must take advantage of whatever ways it can to listen – and show it is listening – to the public as part of conducting politics and forming policy.
One way to tap into the public mood is with social media. In social media, we hear the ever-present hum (or, as it is more modishly termed, ‘buzz’) of the social world in action: argument, outrage, agreement.
Measurable and quantifiable like no previous form of social interaction, social media represent the largest, richest, and most dynamic evidence base for human behaviour that has ever existed. Tapping this ‘buzz’ has already revolutionised the advertising and marketing industries.
It can, and inevitably will, revolutionise politics and policy too.
Crucially, this revolution could be a progressive and democratic one, using social media research to nudge government towards making government more agile and reactive to their constituents’ concerns and criticisms. It could also help us understand how and why we have the beliefs that we do, how we gain affiliations to some groups and not others, and why disorder or violence breaks out.
It will also help us understand about how technology is changing society, including the kind of information we encounter, how we learn, how we view ourselves and view the world around us.
However, as it stands, the current field of social media analytics is inadequate for policy makers: standards of evidence and methodological rigour are not high enough to influence decision- or policy-making. Samples of convenience often produce ‘raw’ metrics of social media phenomena with no further corroboration, explanation or interpretation.
Considerations of culture, context, group, language and psychology are rare, and the ethics of social media research even rarer.
In the face of these opportunities, however, it is vital to do social media research that is reliable, useable and ethically sound. That is why the think tank Demos last week launched The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media - a partnership between policy researchers from Demos, academic computer scientists, and a network of experts that range from tech entrepreneurs to the former director of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, it aims to do exactly this.
For more see the CASM website.