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Andrea Ceron on Social Media and Political Accountability

Verbal fights between supporters of rival parties often make us consider the Web as an environment that promotes negativity. Nor are politicians themselves exempt from ‘gaffes’ when they act impulsively, revealing their real feelings.

Indeed, social media can encourage such impulsive behaviour but it also represents an opportunity to foster transparency. As politicians start using social media to express their thoughts, they can be held accountable by their principals (that is to say, subjects from whom power is derived, such as voters, party activists, party leaders and interest groups), whether such preferences are sincere or expressed for purely strategic purposes. As a result, accountability and transparency can increase accordingly.

The purpose of my book, Social Media and Political Accountability, is to analyze a number of key episodes concerning the relationship between politics and social media in Italy. This is done by means of automated text analysis (whereby word frequencies across different texts are compared so as to extract the positions of various political actors) and supervised sentiment analysis (a method of opinion-mining from social media conversations by a mix of manual analysis and automated analysis deriving from machine learning). For instance, it investigates the endorsements made by centre-left politicians during their primary election of 2012, the effect of social media pressure on the selection of the Head of State in 2013 and the formation of the Letta and Renzi cabinets in 2013 and 2014, as well as several recent public policies.

The results highlight an overall lack of responsiveness toward the will of social media users when these are conceived as a stand-alone ‘competing principal’. The behaviour of politicians seems barely affected by online pressure.

However, social media does play a role. Firstly, although politicians are not necessarily responsive toward the requests of their followers, by declaring online their political views politicians become exposed to citizens’ control: social media users will underline and criticize any U-turn, as the analysis of the ‘civil union bill’ debate has demonstrated.

Secondly, social networking sites can help a party’s leadership to control the behaviour of its MPs by requesting them to display public loyalty online and by checking which MP has expressed dissent, then punishing or rewarding them in light of their visible online behaviour.

The book’s main finding is that analyzing politicians’ tweets gives crucial information about the occurrence of party splits and about politicians’ careers and the formation of governments. To cite just one example, the language adopted by Democratic Party politicians who eventually became ministers or junior ministers in the Renzi cabinet was significantly similar to the language used by the party’s official Twitter account if compared to the language of politicians who did not get a career advancement.

Rather than restraining intraparty democracy, social networking sites therefore provide backbenchers with the opportunity to build their reputations, in terms of showing loyalty towards the leadership or expressing dissent to boost their popularity among rank-and-file members.

Summing up, even if social media are not becoming a new principal that politicians must satisfy, this does not imply that they are unable to bridge the gap between citizens and political elites. On the contrary, as long as social media increase politicians’ incentives to respond to traditional principals, including party leaders, party activists and voters, they can contribute to making the gears of the political system more transparent. Likewise, by strengthening the chain of responsiveness that goes from voters to governments, social media can therefore reinforce the process of representative democracy.

Andrea Ceron is Assistant Professor at Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy, and co-founder of Voices from the Blogs Ltd, a University spin-off that analyzes social media. He has published articles in the British Journal of Political Science, European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, New Media & Society, Information Sciences, and Party Politics.

Social Media and Political Accountability. Published by Palgrave Macmillan 2017.

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