What is often missing is much evidence. And it might well be a daunting task to begin to work out how to properly assess questions like 'how much difference are blogs making to debate within the main political parties?' or 'will twitter make any difference in an election campaign?'
So kudos to academics Nick Anstead (who previously co-edited the Fabian Change We Need collection on the lessons from the Obama campaign) and Ben O’Loughlin who have an embarked on a project to study one of the most high profile moments in British politics last year - the hour in which Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time - in which there was a high level of online engagement.
This Sisyphean project has involved analysing no fewer than 43,730 tweets during the programme, seeking to study the links between what happened on screen and online reactions to it.
Their initial analysis is published in a University of East Anglia working paper, 'The Emerging Viewertariat: Explaining Twitter Responses to Nick Griffin’s Appearance on BBC Question Time', which makes what could well be a successful bid to add to the political lexicon.
There were an average of 673 tweets per minute from the sample during the programme, from 16,852 people, who averaged 2.59 tweets each, though the authors do not identify the individual who tweeted 84 times during the hour!
The paper shows that the peak of twitter activity came in response to Bonnie Greer's funniest attack on the evidence underpinning Nick Griffin's worldview:
Ok, when the ice melted, 17,000 years ago, people came up from the south didn’t they?They couldn’t have come from the north. Where would they have come from? The south. And you know this because you have a 2:2 in history.4 All of us [applause], all of us, all of us are descended from Africa. You wouldn’t disagree with me on that would you?
Ok, now the only, the only people who were here on this continent, and I’ve got a lot of books in fact I brought a lot of stuff for you to read Nick because you need it, the, the, the only people who were here – and I call them people – were the andodols, those were the only people who were on the European continent. Now if you don’t believe that you can come to the British Museum, we’ve got lots and lots of information for you. Because I really wish you would come, because the history you’ve got on your website is a joke.
The researchers are going on to look at a series of questions about what can be learnt from the analysis on online activity, including whether and how this affects media coverage of political events.
Remediation: How do mainstream media report the Viewertariat in the next day’s news? Are the tweets visualized by mainstream media as a selection of the juiciest quotes, as a graph, as a word cloud of most common terms used by the Viewertariat, and so on? Do journalists continue to represent the Viewertariat and its medium of choice (Twitter in this case) either as a fundamentally serious block of the public, or a frivolous and unrepresentative minority presenting entertainment value?