There is little doubt about the impact individual Tweets have had on Irish political events. In February 2010 Senator Dan Boyle posted a Tweet expressing a lack of confidence in Fianna Fail Minister Willie O’Dea’s conduct in remarks related to the alleged connection between a brothel and a named Sinn Fein Councillor (there was no such connection). This set in train a sequence of events that led to the resignation of Willie O’Dea as Minister for Defence, Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s first cabinet casualty.
Eight months later Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney Tweeted the now infamous “sounded between drunk and hungover” Tweet in relation to a questionable performance by Taoiseach Brian Cowen on Morning Ireland. What followed was a political firestorm which resulted in coverage of Brian Cowen’s below-par media performance going global within hours. During the final debate of the recent Presidential campaign a Tweet read out on the Frontline programme resulted in presidential frontrunner Sean Gallagher’s public implosion which possibly cost him the presidency.
In light of these events many politicians today have a greater appreciation the of power of Twitter as a communications tool, and this appreciation has grown very rapidly. In October 2010 Murray conducted research on the activity of Dáil Deputies on Twitter. Our research found that 63 out of 163 TDs (there were three vacant seats at the time of research) had Twitter accounts, representing 39 per cent of the total. Since that research was conducted, a General Election has resulted in an unprecedented shake up of the Irish political landscape. Almost half of the members of the last Dáil are no longer TDs.
So we decided to conduct similar research on the new Dáil – the 31st. The change has been dramatic. While a year ago 39 per cent of TDs had Twitter accounts now 84 per cent (139 of the 166 TDs) have ventured onto the medium.
October 2010’s research found that Fianna Fáil, a party traditionally the most reliant on a community or “grassroots” organisation, was the weakest in relation to the use of Twitter, with just 27 per cent of its TDs having accounts. Conversely the Green Party, the party with the weakest “grassroots” organisation, was the strongest on social media with all six out of its deputies active on Twitter. Thirty-seven per cent of Fine Gael TDs had Twitter accounts while 80 per cent of Labour TDs had Twitter accounts. Only two independent and one Sinn Fein TD had active Twitter accounts.
Of course the Green Party is gone from the Dáil now. Of the major parties today it is Fine Gael (including the Ceann Comhairle) that has the highest percentage of TDs with Twitter accounts (that being 93 per cent), Labour is in second place with 82 per cent, Sinn Fein has 64 per cent, Fianna Fáil has 58 per cent, whilst 89 per cent of Independent/smaller party TDs have Twitter accounts.
The research indicates therefore that all political parties are more engaged with Twitter. However it should be noted that the a lot of Twitter activity centred around last year’s General Election as politicians clamoured to get their message out via Twitter and other media outlets. Some TDs’ Twitter activity has ceased since then but many continue to use Twitter on a regular basis.
In terms of the popularity of TDs on Twitter, 2010’s poll was topped by then Green Party Minister, Eamon Ryan with 2,385 followers (as of October 2010). His Green Party colleague Ciaran Cuffe came second, followed by Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney, Labour’s Joan Burton and Fine Gael’s Lucinda Creighton completing the top five. See 2010 standings below:
2010 Twitter List
Now in early 2012 the top five TDs being followed on Twitter has changed. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is top of the pile with 10,727 followers as of the 1st of February. Socialist Party Leader Joe Higgins (a new entry) is closely behind him with 10,612 followers. Another new entry Independent TD Shane Ross, is in 3rd place with 10,358 followers. Labour Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton is in 4th place with 7,993 followers and is followed by her cabinet colleague Minister Simon Coveney who has 6,732 followers. It’s worth noting that the top 5 Twitter followers table in 2010 featured one member of cabinet and no party leaders compared to this year’s top 5 which features three cabinet members and two party leaders. It is a sign that Twitter is not just confined to the young and less established TDs. See top five table of Followers (2012) below:
Top 5 – Twitter Followers
In addition to compiling a league table of Twitter followers, we have also compiled a table of the number of Tweets each TD has posted as of the 1st of February. Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell tops the table with 8,859 Tweets posted. This is almost twice the number of Tweets posted by Labour’s Ciara Conway who is in second place with 4,547 tweets. She is followed by Fine TDs, Paschal Donohoe, Jerry Buttimer and Labour’s Aodhan O’Riordain are in third, fourth and fifth place respectively.
It is notable that popularity on Twitter doesn’t necessarily equate activity on Twitter. Only Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohoe appears in both top ten lists – covering the number of Tweets posted and the number of Twitter followers. There are also some TDs who Tweet very frequently but who do not command the same number of followers as others who rarely post Tweets and vice versa. One of the most notable of these examples of this is Labour Minister Ruairi Quinn, who despite never having posted a single tweet has accumulated 2,473 followers. See table of top 5 TD Tweeters below:
Top 5 – Tweets
Many TDs who featured in our 2010 research were not returned to the 31st Dáil are still active on Twitter today. 2010’s Twitter poll topper Eamon Ryan has 9,538 followers whilst his party colleague Ciaran Cuffe (ranked 2nd in the Twitter followers in 2010) has 3,964 followers. Other ex-TDs of note with substantial followers include John Gormley, Paul Gogarty, Chris Andrews and Conor Lenihan. See table below of former TDs with active Twitter accounts
Former TDs Twitter Table 01.02.2012
When comparing the Government TDs (we are including the Fine Gael and Labour TDs who have lost their party whips) against the Opposition, 89 per cent of Government TDs have Twitter accounts whilst 71 per cent of Opposition TDs are on Twitter. Both sides score quite well although the research shows that Fianna Fail TDs’ activity on Twitter brings the overall opposition TDs’ percentage down. As for the cabinet, there is quite a high uptake of Ministers on Twitter. Only three cabinet Ministers are not active on Twitter, namely, Michael Noonan, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte. This is further evidence of that fact that even more senior and ‘seasoned’ politicians are taking Twitter more seriously.
So what have we learned in the past 15 months? More TDs are using Twitter as a means of communication. Whilst not all political-Tweeters post Tweets regularly there are many that do, or at least their constituency secretaries or parliamentary assistants do. The General Election definitely saw an upsurge in political Twitter activity as TDs and candidates clamoured to get their message out by any means necessary. Since then, many TDs have drifted away from their Twitter activity, however many still remain active.
There is no doubt that the 31st Dáil is more engaged and active on Twitter. Many politicians have seen the benefits of using Twitter effectively such as posting links to articles, press releases, news clips and Dáil speeches. As our article on 2010’s research highlighted, the issue is what you say, not where you say it. If you are a politician on Twitter you get the most out of it if you communicate regularly. However banal Tweets about the contents of a TD’s breakfast can somewhat dilute the seriousness of a politician’s overall image. The best way of using Twitter is to set agendas by posting original thoughts and material rather than simply responding to others, remaining active on a daily basis, being positive and being informal. Most importantly, do your own communication, otherwise you will be seen as a fraud.
There are many benefits for politicians who use Twitter to its full potential. They can use it as a mean of reaching out to constituents, members of the media and influential figures in public life, especially during an election campaign. However in light of recent controversies involving Twitter coupled with a growing understanding of the power of Twitter, politicians might be less inclined to post candid opinions and might be more reserved in their Tweets in future.
Indeed the three Twitter-related controversies mentioned at the outset carry valuable lessons for politicians and media alike. Politicians must remember that saying something on Twitter is not the same as saying it to a trusted group of followers. If it is interesting enough (and mentioning the words drunk and/or hungover in the same sentence as a named individual is interesting enough) then it will become national news very quickly. So don’t say it on Twitter if you wouldn’t say it on the national news. The media must see purported facts mentioned on Twitter as interesting but not as fact until they have been verified to the same standard as any tip-off needs to be verified before being repeated.
See full league tables of Twitter Followers and Tweets Posted below:
2012 TD Twitter Followers 01.02.2012
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