It already seems an eternity ago that former Prime Minister Kok took an e-mailcourse on public television. At this moment, you can’t think of a politician that isn’t active on the internet. Only a few days before the national elections, it’s rush hour among politicians in social media. It seems like a politician without a profile on Hyves, Facebook or Twitter, in advance has no chance of winning votes. What is the value of social media for politicians and citizens? What audience is reached? Is the gap between politicians and citizens getting smaller? Are there differences in activity between the politicians? How will the activities continue after the elections?
It is a recurring issue around election time: how can the gap between politicians and citizens be reduced? Politicians, as they say, often visit “the country” to reduce this gap. Our previous government even visited citizens, companies and organizations in their first one hundred days to determine their policy. To my opinion, politicians need to stay constantly in contact with the public. For the last few years the possibilities to stay in contact have increased by the upcoming opportunities of social media. Many politicians became member of Hyves and soon got a lot of followers. Recently Prime Minister Balkenende invited his Hyves friends to celebrate his birthday.
Lately Twitter is the most upcoming opportunity for interaction between citizens and politicians. Maxime Verhagen, Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first well-known Dutch politician who started on Twitter. Meanwhile the CDA politician sent more than 7000 tweets. Many politicians have followed Verhagen and are very active on Twitter. However, the question can be asked whether the current activities on Twitter aim to reduce the gap between citizens and politicians. In my opinion barely. Politicians mainly use Twitter to criticize others, send articles about themselves or talk about their private activities. The interaction with citizens is rare. Investigation by the NOS (Dutch Broadcasting Corporation) showed that politicians use Twitter to spread their own messages instead of respond to comments from citizens. The table below shows how many tweets have been sent by the main politicians in the last two campaignweeks. This implies that only four of eleven politicians uses Twitter mainly to interact with others.
Many followers on Twitter are not only “ordinary” citizens, but journalists and opinion leaders. Citizens were very active on Twitter during the election debates. During some debates, the debate itself was the subject with the largest number of followers on Twitter worldwide. The comments were hardly focused on the content and mainly focused on the presentation of the participating politicians.
In my opinion the most important question is how Twitter will be used by politicians after the elections. This requires more interaction rather than shooting messages to the public or sharing their personal life. Twitter could well be used for policy development or evaluation. For this purpose, separate Twitter accounts can be created. Citizens and politicians who are closely concerned with an issue can become a member of this account. Both parties get the possibility to discuss various parts within the subject. These discussions may contribute to the development of new policy. For example, students and politicians can discuss on Twitter about the design of the studyfinance. Discussing objections, considerations and benefits can contribute to the ultimate decision-making.
The increased use of Twitter is an enrichment for the interaction between citizens and politicians. The elections have made sure that both sides recognize the importance of Twitter. Let us now ensure that the opportunities for interaction through social media will be appropriately investigated.