Twitter is a strange beast. Once decried as a place for losers with nothing better to do than share snaps of their breakfasts, it has quickly become a tool of influence, mobilisation and democratisation in various parts of the world. Politicians have utilised its reach and power in the US, illustrated by the fact that a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama embracing was at one time the most tweeted picture ever (usurped earlier this year by Ellen’s Oscar selfie).
A new list of Irish Twitter users published yesterday by PR agency Wilson Hartnell shows “the  most influential users of social media in the Irish political and policy landscape”. The list analyses the top 250 political influencers on Twitter in order to identify the #Power100. The ranking system presented to the public is one of public followers and “power followers”.
Scouring the press release from WilsonHartnell, I see no description of what a power follower is, but since the account with the most amount of power followers has 202 of them, I can only assume it is a follower who is also on this list. WilsonHartnell say that to achieve a high place on the list, accounts “have combined both broad public reach and influence on other influencers”.
When I looked at the #Power100 list this morning, I was puzzled by some of the choices. David McWilliams holds court at the top of the list, followed by Today FM’s Matt Cooper. Politics.ie’s Twitter account comes in third place and is followed by the highest ranking TD, Gerry Adams. No massive surprises so far. The further down one goes however, some odd instances arise.
Enda Kenny is number 14 on the list. That the Taoiseach should occupy such a place on the list would be of no surprise to anyone, indeed some would argue that he should be in the top 10. Going by the list’s objectives however, I don’t think he should even be in the top 50. The account, @endakennytd has been inactive since 2011. Of course, people might still be clicking the follow button, but does a 14 month stint three years ago a Twitter influencer make?
Other users such as Dinny McGinley TD have a mere eight tweets, but have made it onto the list. When on the Twitter profiles of these inactive politicians, keep an eye out for the “followers you know” section and see which ones keep popping up; these are those considered to be the influencers.
The list and its reliance on followers rather than retweets or faves means that a lot of people featured all work in tandem to each other. Journalists are going to follow as many politicians as possible in order to increase the likelihood of getting a news story. Politicians are going to follow as many journalists as possible in order to see what is being written about them.
Equally, when TDs and senators make Twitter accounts, is it understandable that accounts they would follow first are those of their party leader, cabinet colleagues and Oireachtas news services? @OireachtasNews and @merrionstreet occupy the 10th and 11th slots respectively, ranking very high on a list of influencers for what are essentially press release services. Do tweets about the starting times of Dáil debates really deem the account to be one of the top political influencers in the country?
Personally, as a Twitter user, I don’t see the use in a list such as this, especially since I can’t remember the last time the government took on David McWilliams’ advice, regardless of his position at the top of said list. Wilson Hartnell say that the point of the list is to “look behind the Twitter handle to see who is shaping and informing political debate and policy in Ireland”, but the mark has been missed and the power of the follow button has been grossly over estimated.
There is nothing wrong with compiling a list of Twitter influencers and those who use Twitter well. I think this list is a good advertisement for the PR agency which created it with some of those featured even slightly on the list singing its praises, while some are rightly highlighting the fact that the majority of these users are men.
What this list does do however, is show politicians that they need to bring that personal touch. My own favourite moments on Twitter when engaging with a politician is when they let some humanity out in off-colour and sometimes arrogant tweets about journalists. Gerry Adams’ tweets don’t influence political debate but the do influence the political temperature towards him by those who are not power followers, and a lot more politicians need to look outside of the Kildare Street bubble to make inroads with younger users.
What this list does show is a somewhat limited imagination on the part of a lot of politicians, particularly those whose accounts consist of retweets of party tweets and messages or who only become active around election time (incidentally, though Leo Varadkar maintains an active account, his username is still the pre-coalition era @campaignforleo).
Compiling a list using measurements on Twitter as opposed to real life measurements (number of interviews, amount spent speaking in the Dáil etc.) has huge merits when looking at how the conversation is happening for ordinary people. To use a metric like “power followers” however, flies in the face of what the egalitarian Twitter is about. This list shows a group of people who already follow each other and nothing else; engagement through retweets and favourites aren’t even included in the analysis.
There’s a whole other Ireland out there that does not have a public face but is shaping debate in much more influential ways on Twitter than government press accounts and a 3 year silent Taoiseach.