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Thursday, 2nd March 2023

Hancock’s Toon barney: why our politicians need social media, despite the risks

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The most exciting thing to happen since Kevin Keegan’. That’s how Matt Hancock described his beloved Newcastle’s League Cup final clash with Manchester United this past weekend, in a rare convergence of the interests of politicians and perm lovers (at least since the heyday of Derek Hatton).

Politicians professing a sometimes questionable interest in football is nothing new (see David Cameron’s confusion over whether he supported Aston Villa or West Ham). What set Hancock’s remarks apart was the medium in which he made them: his TikTok account. 

If you are not one of the former Health Secretary’s 183,000 followers you may have missed him banging the drum for his side. Many who did, though, were quick to point out that Magpie Matt was wearing a signed shirt that he previously claimed to have auctioned for charity during the pandemic. It was later revealed by Hancock – also on TikTok – that the winning bidder had kindly gifted the shirt back to him. 

While Hancock is manifestly unable to avoid a headline, he did avoid further embarrassment on this occasion. However, the shirt incident still demonstrates the high-risk, gaffe-heavy environment social media presents for our politicians – and how often their mistakes are unnecessarily self-inflicted. This is not a new phenomenon (we remarkably approach the twelfth annual Ed Balls Day), but parliamentarians show no sign of shying away from this potential trapdoor.

We’ve recently seen secretaries of state Grant Shapps and Nadine Dorries join TikTok’s legion of users. Before them, some of Westminster’s younger cohort, such as Zarah Sultana and Dr Luke Evans, have effectively leveraged the platform to connect with a new audience.

Indeed, while many laughed at Matt Hancock’s expense this weekend, they perhaps do so at their own peril.

“Hancock’s following rose significantly after the incident, and more than half of his followers are under the age of 24 – a demographic his party has long struggled to reach.”

After it was suggested the Government may bar MPs from TikTok, Shapps – one of the Conservatives’ premier authorities on campaigning – said he would not be ‘chased off’ the platform. With 158,000 likes across his profile, perhaps his party should listen. 

Like any weapon, social media has its dangers. Many politicians face daily threats of violence, abuse and intimidation on what has often been called the ‘cesspool’ of the Twittersphere. But legislation to make this space safer and better for all is in the offing, and there’s little reason to think the toxicity of some online spaces is a feature rather than a bug. 

More importantly, social media is too much of an asset to ignore. As we draw closer to the next general election and the parties rally their troops for a march on Downing Street, it would be naive to neglect the power of social media as an offensive weapon. We’re already used to young and hungry campaigners deploying social media to mobilise support among their own peer groups. But older demographics who increasingly use Facebook as a key source of news and information can also be reached through social networks as never before.

“As the arms race towards the next election intensifies, it would be incredibly shortsighted to leave themselves outgunned.”

If used strategically and wisely – with knowledge of how platforms work, and a long-term plan to make them work for you – social media can supplement the arsenal of political parties.

As the arms race towards the next election intensifies, it would be incredibly shortsighted to leave themselves outgunned.

Well…at least not like Hancock’s Newcastle did on Sunday.