It started with a tweet. This November, the Dutch parliamentary press was analysing a political row that had its origins in just 140 characters.
The tweet in question was sent by politician Geert Wilders, whose party, the populist right-wing PVV, supports a minority government consisting of the economic liberal party VVD and the christian-democrats CDA. It read: “Additional budget cuts in 2012? Will be very difficult to reach compromise with VVD and CDA. Unless they agree with PVV to cut back 4 billion [euros] on development aid.”
The secretary for Economic Affairs, vice prime minister Maxime Verhagen (CDA), replied: “Not very original, Wilders his latest tweet’. Various media outlets pointed to the remarkable fact that the coalition government and its supporting party PVV are now negotiating next year’s budget via Twitter. The exchange led to a debate in the press on whether the Dutch should invest in development aid.
In the Netherlands, Twitter has become part of the public political debate. Earlier this year a report said “the Netherlands has the highest internet penetration worldwide for two of the other key global social networking sites, Twitter and Linkedin. The Netherlands is in many ways a nexus of global social networking behavior”. Just as politicians have been using interviews in newspapers and talk-shows on television strategically, they are now using Twitter as a political tool.
Social media is affecting the message
How do journalists in the Hague, where the Dutch parliament and government are seated, use social media? What effect does Twitter have on political journalism?
“A political tweet only has real influence when it is cited by traditional news media”, says Nel Ruigrok, researcher for De Nederlandse Nieuwsmonitor, a scientific institute for journalism in Amsterdam. “Wilders’ tweets consist cruder language than others. That, combined with his inaccessibility for interviews, increases his chances for being cited in the media, compared to other politicians. Everybody wants to know what Wilders is thinking”, she says.
Drs. Peter Verweij had been teaching new media and journalism at the School of Journalism in Utrecht until he left the school in November. He recently looked at the network structure of a selection of politicians and journalists on Twitter. “Wilders is an interesting case. He uses Twitter purely as a broadcast, in a very clever way”, Verweij says.
As of the beginning of December, Wilders had more than 130,500 followers on Twitter. He himself follows no one. But even if he did not have such a large following, his impact reaches further than those who have subscribed to see his messages because traditional news media often quotes his tweets.
Responding to one readers’ call for the NRC Handelsblad to ignore tweets, the newspaper’s ombudsman Sjoerd de Jong said: “I think that would be a bad idea. It’s still information....A tweet is a source. Whether a politician says something on camera or in a tweet, it can be newsworthy.”
Frits Wester, a prominent political reporter for RTL Nieuws, agreed. He boasts over 137,000 Twitter followers, making him one of the most followed Dutch political journalists. “We judge tweets by the same journalistic standards as we do other sources,” he said. “The core is the same, only the tool is different.”
The difference, though, is that politicians are able to control their messages via their tweets because there is no dialogue with journalists to ask additional questions. NRC Handelsblad’s de Jong said: “That’s why you should always try to speak to the politicians, and ask more questions. And that’s what our journalists do. The problem with Wilders is that he often refuses to comment.” Newspapers then decide it’s better to report the tweet rather than nothing.
Political journalist Pieter van Os, who writes for NRC Handelsblad explained that “some politicians think it’s unfair that Wilders gets away with just a tweet, while more approachable politicians get all the difficult questions.”
Should quality media reject social networking?
The consensus seems to be that as long as the report clearly states that the journalist tried to reach the politicians, that’s okay. On that note: Wilders has not answered a request by this reporter to comment on this story.
News websites which need quotes quickly gratefully use politicians’ tweets. In fact, it is not uncommon to see an entire news article containing mostly tweets as sources.
“I think the quality media will only use Twitter as a last option”, says lecturer and new media expert Peter Verweij. “Journalists from quality newspapers will still try to interview politicians on the phone or in real life.”
Researcher Ruigrok is not worried for journalism’s future, either. “I don’t think we will see a recital of tweets replacing journalistic interpretation”, she says.
The public broadcaster NOS sent a memorandum to its journalists in 2009 about the use of Twitter and other social media. “It’s important not to forget that Twitter is not a replacement of journalistic craft. Twitter is an additional tool like weblogs are,” it read.
'I can't really do without it as a reporter'
NRC Handelsblad journalist Van Os is not an active tweeter, but follows politicians. “I can’t really do without”, he says.
Many of the Hague’s older political journalists remember B. C. L. Waanders, a parliamentary reporter who retired in 1990. He was very strict about what should be reported. What politicians said in parliament was relevant, he thought. He didn’t even interview them. Had it been available in his day, Waanders probably wouldn’t have been a Tweeter.
But times have changed, reckons Frits Wester of RTL Nieuws. Twitter can also be useful to communicate with audiences and sometimes, says Wester, he asks a politician a question posed by one of his followers. The social network can also break news. When Wouter Bos, who was the leader of the Labor Party PvdA, left politics last year, Wester reported the news via Twitter. “Sometimes there is no news broadcast, and you can’t wait.” Other times, a tweet can be a teaser announcing a big story in the evening news. “We see in the ratings that this results in a larger audience,” he boasted.
Twitter is not the only social medium around. Verweij points to the business-oriented social network Linkedin as an interesting source for journalists. “Linkedin can be very useful as a tool to determine a politician’s background. If someone is in a certain parliamentary commission, you can find out if they have any links with subject that might pose a conflict of interest.” Earlier this year, NRC Handelsblad discovered the existence of a Linkedin group of members of the christian-democratic party CDA. In this group there was some very critical debate on the strategical and political course of the party.
And, as some of the sources for this story suggest, maybe something new will come along in a few years, that will replace these tools once more. The journalistic mission will remain the same.