How are local politics playing out online and on social media?
Northumberland County Council's social media working group met for the first time this week, but it's not about '˜policing the internet', according to one senior councillor, even if that's what some might want.
The meeting was not in public – common practice for council working groups – but the issues potentially being discussed certainly play out in public.
As in the national arena, social media has provided another forum where local politics can be aired, but while there are many advantages to the connectivity and access provided, it’s also the most unregulated of all those forums.
Anyone can set up a Facebook page and post accusations and allegations with very little opportunity for comeback.
Anonymity is one of the main concerns, because as well as not being able to trace the source or know who is behind it, it also means that the tone of the debate can deteriorate more quickly.
It seems to be human nature that people are more likely to be unpleasant, rude or critical from behind the relative safety of a screen than face-to-face.
Politicians from all parties and sides in Northumberland say there is a problem with some of what’s happening online and on social media, but it is very often councillors and party activists themselves who are alleged to be behind these pages.
This article deliberately doesn’t name those accused of running these anonymous pages or posts, not least because it is often very difficult to corroborate these claims, but also for fear of descending into a ‘he said, she said’ row, one of the very charges levelled at politics conducted on social media.
But there are a growing number of these pages and blogs, with various political viewpoints all represented.
It is important to say that these range in content and tone, and there is nothing wrong with some of what’s published, much of which is opinion, but the issue remains the lack of accountability.
The new social media working group was the result of a motion put before the full council meeting in January by Labour group leader Grant Davey, which received unanimous support.
This was during the local authority’s first meeting to be streamed live online and Coun Davey pointed out that this filming threw up issues about who could use the images and how they might misuse them and mislead people.
The motion was seconded by Conservative and council leader Peter Jackson, who accepted that while the council did have guidance on social media, it was potentially outdated and needed refreshing.
He said: “We do need to have a very serious look on a cross-party basis about this whole issue and that’s why I’m happy to second the motion.”
Coun Anne Dale called for a strong monitoring process to make sure people are accountable, saying: “There’s some really quite nasty stuff out there.”
It all went quiet on this front for some months, with a county council spokeswoman saying in May: “There is existing guidance for members on the use of social media. We will be refreshing this, including setting up a cross-party group to consider the issue.”
But at this month’s full council meeting, it was reported that the first meeting of the working group was to be on Monday (September 24) with Coun Dale asking if the scope could be expanded to include trolling and abuse.
Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate resources, said: “No, we can’t be looking at trolling. If you have an issue with a particular member’s behaviour or a specific issue with social media, there are a number of mechanisms.
“If it’s an issue with a councillor, there is a complaints procedure and a standards procedure. If it’s an issue with defamation, there are quite clear laws about that and if it’s more serious than that, you can call the police.
“This social-media group is not about trying to police the internet, it’s not practical, it’s not within our remit and it’s not what we’re setting out to achieve.
“I’d like to think we achieve something along the lines of using social media in a positive, honest and truthful way rather than creating fear and putting out inaccurate information.”
And this latter comment reflects another issue with local politics online, which is perhaps a rung below the offensive and abusive trolling on social media, and that’s the potential for the spread of misleading and one-sided information or simply not telling the whole story.
This can sometimes occur through the pages or sites of specific political parties, who are, of course, entitled to put their own slant on what they publish, but it can lead to what’s called the echo chamber, where people’s opinions and views – and the inability to accept other people’s – become reinforced by only hearing information and opinions from those who already share the same views.
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At the full council meeting in May, Coun Oliver said: “At the last council meeting, we talked about some inaccurate figures that were floating around and I made an appeal to try to have political debate on accurate information.
“I note looking around online that there are various figures (for the refurbishment of County Hall) being put out by various Labour Facebook pages – we’ve seen £17million, £26million, £29million, £30million, £38million and, most recently, an astonishing £57million. That’s clearly not true.”
However, Coun Scott Dickinson, the Labour group chairman hit back, saying: “Northumberland Conservatives repeatedly in all material promoted £80million (for the new council HQ in Ashington) and that was a lie. It was proved to be a lie in this chamber by officers of the council.”
Gavin Jones, a former Lib Dem who has recently joined the Labour Party, said that the practice puts people off from getting involved in local politics.
The former ward member for Berwick North, who lost his seat at last May’s elections, has previously called publicly for Northumberland County Council and other authorities to tackle online abuse.
“To hide behind a veiled cloak when you make those posts, it’s cowardly,” he said. “When I post on Facebook, I post under my name and if people disagree that’s fine and they can respond under their names.
“The other thing with pages like that is they block people like me so I can’t respond.”
Referring to a number of false accusations levelled at him online in the past, he said: “It doesn’t give any integrity to political commentary.
“But where do you go with it? If you draw attention to it then people do think you are guilty of it.
“These pages make offensive and untrue statements which is quite intimidatory.
“People lose trust in the political system when you resort to insulting people rather than criticising their policies.
“People will talk about democracy, but you ought to be strong enough to put your name behind something so you can be pursued if it’s untrue or so electors can say we don’t like this type of behaviour at the next election.”
Georgina Hill, county councillor for Berwick East and chairman of the audit committee, believes that women in public life get targeted in a certain way on social media.
She said: “It is neither desirable or possible for Northumberland County Council to try to police social media. Unfortunately, there have always been vain and secretive politicians, and others in public life, who try to gag the free press because they do not like what is being written about them.
“There are huge benefits to social media and it has proven to be an extremely useful tool for campaigners and whistle-blowers to raise awareness and expose wrongdoing.
“The downsides are well-known and rehearsed. In political discussions on social media, there is a huge amount of trolling and it seems to me that women in public life get targeted in a particular way.
“Political debate on social media is often very poor and debased through whataboutery. There has never been a greater need for a return to good old-fashioned debating clubs.”
A spokesman for Northumberland Labour said: “The council’s own policies on social-media use need updating, in the words of the leader of the council in January when unanimously passing a motion to strengthen its own policies regarding abuses of social media.
“Politics in Northumberland can become so much more civil if only the authority started to lead by transparently interacting with its residents and it can start this process by implementing its own motion and showing that that Coun Jackson’s words in January were not empty and signalled a start to tackling a pervasive culture of online bullying and harassment.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service