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The tweets of change

The tweets of change

by Peter Duncan

Given the scale of the change in direction at the top of the UK Labour Party, now is a great time to reflect on how group behaviour is changing public life. Whilst my analysis, inevitably, relies much more on hypothesis than a recollection of long-distant psychology lectures during university years – the students of today will have many new examples of group behavioural change with which to understand what drives a crowd. And with those examples, you can’t escape the conclusion that the world will continue to become less certain, with wilder swings in public opinion becoming commonplace.

Whether it is the tsunami election of 56 SNP MPs to Westminster in May, or the rapid changes to political opinion all over Europe, you are forced to conclude that the old certainties have to be consigned to the waste paper bin. We’ve all been working on the basis of some general assumptions that are no longer true – and particularly in the public affairs industry, that makes anticipating the future more uncertain than ever.

We assumed that the fulcrum of the Labour Party was rooted in the centre ground, and were proved wrong. We assumed that the public across Europe were relatively disinterested in the long-running plight of Syrian refugees and migrants, and were proved wrong as opinion swung violently in late August. We assumed that The Donald (Trump) was a novelty entrant into the margins of the contest to become Republican presidential candidate, and have been proved wrong. We assume that the British electorate are broadly in favour of retaining Trident, and staying in the EU – but can we be sure any more?

What is making the mood changes in public opinion more and more violent in recent times – what explains the wild variations in opinion that are becoming part of daily life?

Social media has a significant part to play in understanding this new phenomenon – and particularly Twitter. It has been a long hot summer of debate inside the Labour Party, as their internal electorate swung dramatically towards Jeremy Corbyn in a fervent display of common purpose and determination to change the political consensus. So far, so surprising.

However, I wouldn’t mind waging that much of the feverish debate was fuelled in complete isolation from the wider reaction in the country, and in ignorance of the scepticism with which a Corbyn-led party was likely to be greeted. Twitter must have played a significant part in that phenomenon, as any immersion in the #jezwecan hashtag sub-culture will confirm. Reviewing it, makes you aware how very easy it is to create a personal ecosystem of news and views from one particular point of view, based entirely on restricting who is followed. Spend too long there, isolated from reality, and suddenly huge swings in opinion seem more like adapting to a new consensus, rather than a radical departure from the centre ground.

How many of the 59.5% who voted for their new leader, were convinced that their whole world was eagerly anticipating that leftwards turn for their Party; how many of them were doing so in blissful ignorance that the wider country might, just might, take a different view?

Twitter is a useful tool, which is rapidly becoming an indispensable medium for active and passive communication. In short, it’s a great means of following thoughts from across the political spectrum, or from shutting out the inconvenient truth.