The authentic political leader…..and facebook…

An oxymoron you might say.

Many of us are consistently underwhelmed by the politicians and the political dialogue we hear echoing from the hallowed halls of Westminster and Holyrood, but are things changing?

At a recent event hosted by the Asia Scotland Institute we listened to Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s Government and Policy Specialist for EMEA, and Carl Miller, of London based think tank Demos talk about the way Facebook (and social media more generally) is changing how we engage with and in political dialogue.

What struck me most was how I felt listening to Elizabeth talk about Facebook as a steward of the democratic process. As she spoke I could not help but get excited at the power this one medium has had and is having, at connecting political leaders directly with their electorate. Even more powerful, that the electorate feel that they are seeing the ‘authentic’ person behind the leader. Interesting, that politicians who have historically spent too much time behind walls, physical or metaphorical, are now using a virtual wall to break down this distance between them and the people who will put pen to paper and vote for them.

This was a change for me, to see a Facebook wall as something other than a daily dose of soap opera madness filled with pictures of peoples food, teeth, lips, babies and free opinions on everything from the new John Lewis advert to the Syria crisis – everyone is an expert on Facebook now it seems. And there was my problem I think, I had always focused on the individual comments and things my ‘friends’ were posting and in doing so had not really considered the vast opportunity such a platform presents for how we collect, process and regurgitate information in our networks.

If a platform like Facebook then becomes a go-to place for political discussion we have to also think about whether we need to have some etiquette in place – just the same as if we have these conversations off-line. I live in Scotland and during the Scottish Referendum I was stunned by how quickly people who claimed to be ‘friends’ (granted we are not friends with everyone we ‘friend’ on Facebook ironically) turned on each other and sent out vitriolic diatribes that I’m sure one day in the future they might be ashamed for their grandchildren to see.

This of course is not Facebook’s fault – they are the means, they are the platform, they are the stage – but we are the players and this is why Elizabeth’s talk resonated with me so much. If political leaders, as she says, are running their own accounts (with advice I’m sure) and are actively making the effort to engage with the people, and the electorate is responding then perhaps this can only be a good thing.

Imagine what impact this could have for businesses if the CEO harnessed this trend to talk directly to his or her employees. Increased engagement, satisfaction, connection with the business purpose and the boardroom conversations – all things that research shows increases productivity.

It seems to me we are riding the wave of a great opportunity to better use Facebook and other platforms, to access and disseminate knowledge and opinions. We do however need to be mindful that political engagement on-line brings with it a whole new set of challenges for managing your ‘digital footprint’. This openness or access to our political leaders can lull us into a false sense of security – and we must remember that these conversations are not happening down the pub, where a lively debate or an ill-timed comment can be quickly forgotten. Just ask Jon Ronson.

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