Research into the uses of social media by politicians continues to focus especially on exceptional contexts such as election campaigns and political crises, and on major political leaders and candidates, while the more quotidian, routine utilisation of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook by ordinary parliamentarians is comparatively absent from the literature. This is perhaps unsurprising, but it largely overlooks how social media have also become embedded into the everyday work of professional politicians even – and perhaps particularly – when they are not subject to constant and intense scrutiny by mainstream media. Indeed, for the comparatively less visible majority of elected representatives on the backbenches of parliament, their social media accounts may now be an important channel for connecting directly with their constituents.
This paper reports on a comparative study of the routine social media uses by parliamentarians in two state assemblies in Germany and Australia. Taking a mixed-methods approach, it draws on in-depth interviews with representatives, as well as on detailed quantitative and qualitative analyses of the activities of and user responses to the politicians’ Twitter accounts, in order to both elicit the parliamentarians’ own attitudes towards and strategies for using social media, and compare these with the observable reality of their activities.
For this study we selected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), the lower house of the parliament of Victoria, Australia, and Mitglieder des Landtags (MdLs), the single chamber of the parliament of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), Germany. Within their respective national contexts, both are populous states of considerable demographic diversity that represent a significant geographic region; during the time of our data gathering in 2015 and 2016, both were also at mid-point in their respective electoral cycles, ensuring that our data were not significantly skewed by recent or impending election campaigns. We tracked the public communicative activities around all MLAs’ and MdLs’ Twitter accounts that could be identified, and for each state conducted some 20 interviews with parliamentarians from across the political spectrum represented in parliament.
The findings from our study point to considerable variation in the interest in and level of social media use across the two case studies. The Australian state politicians were considerably more active on Twitter than their German counterparts, and were also the subject of significantly more engagement from other users on the platform; this is likely to reflect the stronger uptake of the platform – in general and especially for political purposes – in Australia. Further, interviews revealed that MPs’ attitudes on how much personal information they are content to share with the public varies remarkably. Moreover, we found indicators of the MPs’ views about the changing concept of representative democracy.
The study makes an important contribution to research into the emerging political uses of social media by shifting the focus of such research towards the less glamorous world of the working state parliamentarian, whose social media activities may never become as visible as those of national and international leaders, but are likely to be of much more immediate relevance to the domestic electorate.