Social media and the vulnerability of "old politics"

The big difference between the current Liberal Party leadership tensions, and previous ones, is the role that social media such as Twitter and blogs, and “live updates” from SMS, are playing.

Journalists in the Canberra press gallery are getting updates from Liberal MPs from inside party room meetings. The updates are “live” – that is, sent moments after the event. The journalsists are then passing those unfiltered rumours straight on to social networking tools such as Twitter. Their Twitter followers then “re-tweet” those rumours, spreading them like wild fire.

The second element playing into this leadership crisis is the activities of Liberal staffers, members and supporters in placing pressure on Liberal MPs. Many Liberal MPs reported that they received hundreds, even thousands, of emails opposing the (amended) Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This seems to have been orchestrated by conservative, CPRS-opposing staffers in Canberra, with a Twitter, Facebook, email and phone call campaign.

Whereas earlier leadership crises in both Labor and Liberal have happened over days and months, with splitters, leakers and the media carefully controlling the messages going out to the public, this leadership spill has been “opened up”. The crisis certainly has been exacerbated by the openness.

This vulnerability to instant communication and the pressure that can be exerted through social networks, shows how brittle the Liberal Party (and traditional, “old politics”) is.

Traditional, old politics, relies on command and control and discipline. The fact that Liberal MPs are now tweeting, reading @replies and getting out their own message (rather than toeing the party line) through Facebook and Twitter is undermining the traditional Westminster-style Liberal party.

The Liberal Party has long been considered to rely on strong leadership to hold divergent and opposing ideological views together under the same roof. Now, with social networks rising to prominence, MPs that otherwise would fall in line with the party, can now pander to their ideological allies, and likewise, be pressured by those same allies.

Similarly, dissident MPs such as Abbott and Minchin can have their supporters and staff utilise these new technologies to get out their anti-leader media lines.

The instant, live, always-on nature of the media cycle also means that journalists can no longer check sources. When they get a rumour, they risk losing an exclusive by trying to verify it. As a result, they are captured by MPs pushing an agenda. This has created enormous confusion. A case in point is the “exclusive” from The Australian that Julie Bishop asked Turnbull to step down; both Turnbull and Bishop later denied the story.

Whoever wins on Tuesday at the Liberal party room meeting, it is clear that leadership politics has been changed forever.

Postscript: Tweets by MPs are not covered by Parliamentary Privilege.

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