Interacting with Whom?: Swedish Parliamentarians on Twitter during the 2014 Elections

Interacting with Whom?: Swedish Parliamentarians on Twitter during the 2014 Elections

Jakob Svensson, Anders Olof Larsson
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/IJEP.2016010101
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This article explores Swedish Parliamentarians' Twitter practices during the 2014 general elections. For individual candidates, the political party is important for positions within the party and on the ballot, especially in a party-centered democracy. A previous qualitative (n)ethnographic research project during the previous elections in 2010, in which one campaigning politician was studied in-depth, found that her social media practices to a large extent were inward-facing, focusing on the own party network. But does this result resonate among all Swedish Parliamentarians? Specifically, the authors ask: is Twitter primarily used interactively, for intra-party communication, to interact with strategic voter groups or voters in general? By analyzing all Parliamentarians tweets two weeks up to the elections the authors conclude that retweeting was done within a party political network while @messaging was directed towards political opponents. Mass media journalists and editorial writers were important in Parliamentarians' Twitter practices, while so-called ordinary voters were more absent.
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The utilization of communication platforms by campaigning politicians has a long history. For example, Jones (1964) showed that telephones were being integrated into campaign efforts already in the 1896 US presidential elections. Likewise, studies have underlined Roosevelt’s “great radio voice” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1944) and Kennedy’s mastery of the television medium (Tichenor et al., 1970). Today, social media have joined the ranks of services that interest campaign strategists and academics alike. Although television is still the most important platform for campaigning politicians (e.g. Towner, 2013), social media platforms are seen as pivotal. Indeed, the 2008 Obama campaign spurred the hype surrounding social media services during election campaigns. Since then, candidate use of social media like Facebook and Twitter has been studied extensively. Most studies though have been conducted in candidate-centered systems, notably the US and the UK (e.g. Anduiza, 2009; Goldbeck et al., 2010; Jackson & Lilleker, 2011). The current paper examines individual MPs (Members of Parliaments) Twitter uses during the 2014 Swedish national elections. The Swedish system is different from the UK and the US in that it is characterized by strong political parties (see Arter, 1999; Hansen & Kosiara-Pedersen, 2014). The country under scrutiny should therefore be of interest to study as an atypical case. How are services like Twitter, sometimes thought of as particularly suitable for politicians in candidate-centered systems (e.g. Gibson & McAllister, 2014), employed by individual MPs in a system geared towards the party organizations?

Sweden is particularly interesting in this regard since it is slowly becoming hybridized with possibilities opening up for candidates to circumvent the ballot as established by the party. So-called preference voting has been a possibility since 1998. However, the electorate did not make use of this possibility to any great extent though, tending to choose candidates high on the party ballot if they did (Nielsen, 2007). Therefore was the threshold for being elected by preference voting lowered from eight to five percent, potentially further underlining social media as relevant for individual candidates in their election campaigns.

We focus on Twitter in this paper because the platform allows us to study connections/ relationships between users, in other words who interact with whom. Besides undirected tweets – messages sent to all followers – the platform can also be used to send RTs (retweets – redistribution of a tweet sent by another user) or @replies (contacting another user in a public fashion).

This quantitative study follows on the heels of an in-depth qualitative study of Swedish MP Nina Larsson and her online activities during the previous elections in 2010 (Svensson, 2011 & 2014). The study concluded that Larsson primarily used Twitter for image-management, to negotiate and express her political persona within a party political network. This negotiation was done through spreading (amplifying) her own statements, performances she herself had participated in as well as those of other party comrades. The Nina study underlines that the more outward-facing understanding of individual candidates social media practices – using them strategically in order to gain more voters through communicating with strategic groups (Anduiza, 2009), through image-management or for a better deliberation with the electorate (Jackson & Lilleker, 2011) – needs to complemented with an inward-facing understanding, i.e. candidates using social media in order to express and promote their political selves within the party political network.

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