If, like me, you have children who are old enough to vote, you may have noticed what I have noticed. They’re different. They seem permanently connected to their friends via social media, rarely watch the news or read a paper, and they have many transient interests that seem to follow the dictates of fashion. When it comes to politics, they seem apathetic or disengaged. But I am not sure that they actually are, and after hearing Nicole Huber’s (Chief of staff to the Mayor of the City of Heidelberg) presentation, I am even less convinced. I think they are engaged, just not in the ways that older generations recognize or expect.
Huber shared with the audience at the Premier Business Leadership Series in Amsterdam the City of Heidelberg‘s experiences using social media analytics: The city quickly identifies topics that are catching the public interest and gauge reactions to many of the important policies the city is introducing.
The move to social media analytics was partly in recognition that there is a lot more going on in the public discourse than what the city was aware of. In one case, an important investment plan (millions of Euros) suffered a set-back after a social media campaign to block it -- about which the City Council was completely unaware. This is a rising phenomenon: Short, popular campaigns are led by a very vocal interest group (and often a minority). They use social media to coordinate a protest about a policy or plan they don’t support.
But the Internet is not always the best host of well-informed debate. Opinions can be taken as facts, rumors can be seen as evidence - and sometimes - people just outright lie. Politics is all about persuasion and seeking consensus, and there have always been vocal minorities that shout down the silent majority. And with the advent of social media and mobile devices this is now faster, stronger.
Huber shared how social media analytics from SAS started to give the Mayor and the City Council an insight into these discussions and debates - What topics were trending? Was the sentiment positive or negative? How well supported was a particular topic? All of this could be learned by analyzing data that was in the public domain on social media sites (the City Council did not try to capture personal details, and the only Facebook pages they read were their own official ones).
The results were interesting:
- Many of the most vocal campaigns were also very short (in Huber’s words ‘bushfires’).
- People can be very vocal about things they don’t support and the spread of misinformation can be very quick.
- Social media has great potential to engage with a larger audience than other political forums - you may get 30 – 100 people in a room to discuss a policy, but thousands can participate through social media.
- Grassroots democracy can be threatened by vocal minorities trying to block the adoption of policies that are for the wider public good but may be seen as negatively impacting a subset of the population.
Although this state surveillance of the population might seem "big brotherish", Nicole Huber does not see it like that: Heidelberg is not trying to manage the conversation, it is trying to be more transparent and aware. It wants to find those areas where more dialogue can alleviate concerns, where voters know more about what their representatives are doing and why.
Social media analytics may not be the whole answer to addressing perceived political apathy in youth, but it is an important step in better understanding of the problem.