East Belfast MLAs on Twitter: the calm before the storm

4 Mar 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

East Belfast MLAs on Twitter

Scope visits East Belfast soon to be the scene of a ferocious General Election contest to check out its MLAs online activity. 

Maybe it’s the calm before the storm or the soothing effect of strolling down Cyprus Avenue but after all the excitement of Fermanagh and South Tyrone we were tempted to take the blue bus back to the country.

The constituency briefly flickered into life whilst we were visiting when Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle accidentally blocked Sinn Fein’s Phil Flanagan from accessing his feed. Watchers of the boul Phil were hoping this would lead to an entertaining exchange, culminating in one of those “split second errors of judgement” that characterise his online activity.

But it was not to be. Lyttle immediately acknowledged the error and all was amicably resolved.

So whilst we are unlikely to witness many complaints, law suits or fisticuffs between MLAs in East Belfast, there’s not a great deal of craic either.

Time therefore for serious analysis of a very serious group of politicians.

The constituency is home to our First Minister Peter Robinson, who has an impressive 20,300 followers.  As a debater Robinson is as sharp as they come and very rarely holds back.

Drill down hard enough into his feed and you will find flashes of his fire and spark, but the clue here is that the account states that these are tweets from “Peter Robinson and his team”. This is the first time we have come across this in our survey. There’s nothing wrong with it and Robinson is extremely busy and it is much better to be active than not (Arlene Foster please note). However if he has a team behind him 690 tweets is a pretty poor show, let’s hope they are not on performance related pay! We also wonder whose idea it was to name Robinson's account @DUPleader and what on earth, if anything he will do whenever he no longer has that post. 

It should also be noted that although he has impressive statistics he has less than half the followers of his deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.

Robinson’s party colleague Sammy Douglas has 3,788 followers, a solid showing from one of the most popular MLAs in the Assembly. But Douglas is such a personable man, he should be looking to increase this substantially. A clue here is that he re-tweets far more than he tweets. Give us a bit more of yourself please Sammy. 

The other DUP MLA is the veteran Robin Newton with 1355 followers, better than some but below par given his experience and profile, but nice to see that wee pic of the daffodil in his garden in any event!

The two Alliance MLAs are interesting case studies. Chris Lyttle (6282 followers) is energetic online. He rarely misses an opportunity to engage and has had quite good success with the media in this regard, challenging stories and building relationships, a politician who clearly understand how much the media uses Twitter as a research tool. 

There is an interesting recent exchange, for example with the BBC’s Mark Simpson around positive stories about East Belfast, prompted by Simpson’s recent TV peaceline story. It is interesting to note that adopting a very different style Lyttle has slightly more followers than the incendiary Phil Flanagan. It will be interesting to track the comparison long term, provided neither tries to block the other again. 

Judith Cochrane on the other hand is very diligent and hard working on Twitter but for us it is all a bit robotic, if she could inject a bit more passion and personality into her activity she’d build substantially on her 2975 followers. Twitter is about engagement, not just broadcasting the party line. As voters we want to know you better, warts and all. 

She could learn a lot from the UUP’s Michael Copeland, who has recently suffered from depression. Copeland has written very movingly about this on his Facebook account. He now supports groups involved in combatting mental ill health and Scope found his honesty and vulnerability impressive. Politicians are human too, and the rest of us admire people who are honest about their issues. We relate to them. He has 4289 followers, and the number is going up all the time despite the infrequency of his tweets. 

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