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18:27

How Twitter added to the #askthechancellors TV debate

Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellors has provoked a range of reactions as the live TV debate was the first big social media event of the election campaign in the UK.

As well as watching the debate live on TV and online, people could share and discuss their impressions and comments on Twitter, using the hashtag #askthechancellors.

Channel 4 estimated that the debate generated 20,000 tweets over a two-period, becoming the number one trending topic in the UK and London on Twitter, and number three worldwide.

The existence of a live back channel online as the debate unfolded added a new dimension to the traditional political argument and counter-argument.

The director of Polis at the LSE, Charlie Beckett, described it as a small triumph for democracy:

It all makes for much richer, multi-layered reportage. The TV debate alone would have been worth it. But the fact that tens of thousands of people were taking part reminds us that citizens do care about politics. And they want to be part of reporting the debate as it happens.

The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones suggested that:

Twitter, rather than television, could be the place where the issues are really dissected.

Others, like George Brock, the head of journalism at City University London, struck a more sceptical tone, saying he was “not buying this as transformative change.”

An interesting event occurs on mainstream television. The leisured, educated and tech-savvy classes discuss what they see and hear, with – in this case – a heavy injection of tweeting political spinners in the mix. Cafe conversation gone digital, if you like. I just don’t see what’s transformative about a bigger conversation. It’s just larger.

It is too early to talk about social media as bringing about transformation change in the way politics is conducted.  But Brock takes too narrow a view on the conversation taking place on Twitter.

The exchange on Twitter works on several levels.  At first glance, it is about the content – what people are saying.

But the information is not simply dependent on the content of the message. A user’s profile, their social connections and the messages they resend, or retweet, provide an additional layer of information. This is called a social graph and it is implicit in social networks such as Twitter.

The social graph provides a representation of an individual and their connections. Each user on Twitter has followers, who themselves have followers. Thus each tweet has a social graph attached to it, as does each retweet of that message. Accordingly, social graphs offer a means to infer reputation and trust. The following section discusses the relationship between Twitter and journalism.

The messages on Twitter have sentiments attached to them that can be analysed and aggregated, providing a measure of the general feeling. This is called sentiment analysis.

By approaching Twitter messages as data fragments, rather than as content, we can develop a more nuanced approach.  As I have argued before, the value of Twitter lies less in each individual message, but in the mosaic they collectively create.


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