A Political Referendum and a Primary Source Revolution: the shifting dynamics of citizen-leader dialogue

A Political Referendum and a Primary Source Revolution: the shifting dynamics of citizen-leader dialogue

The European Union Referendum is widely regarded as one of the most pivotal moments in modern political history.  Its outcome has, naturally, sparked intense conversation across Europe and around the world.

Whereas in previous decades these conversations amongst citizens would take place in spaces that would be impossible to really capture beyond the passing anecdotes – in a pub, at the office, around the kitchen table, on the phone – in today’s world reactions to the vote play out in ways that are quite publicly-visible.  Most interestingly, gathering-places for public analysis are the social media accounts of today’s global leaders who will be responsible for taking the mandate from their people forward.

This trend is both telling and compelling.  It enables us to nuance the news we read, the reactions we hear, the conclusions we draw.  Gone are the days when a public official would call together a press conference to invited members of the media, deliver their statements, and leave the analysis to reporters.  Today, leaders still hold their press conferences and journalists will still lend their analysis to the issues at hand.  But in addition, this first-hand material will be shared directly with members of the public to make their own judgements and share their own reactions with the people in their networks.

We are witnessing – on a massive global scale – the unprecedented availability of the “primary source.”

On June 24th, the day the referendum results were released, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan turned to Facebook to reassure the one million Europeans living in London that “you are very welcome here.”  A half a million people reacted to his post.  President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz stated in his comprehensive Facebook post that “the lesson I take from this referendum is that we have to reform the EU to make it fairer.”  Seven and a half thousand people reacted to his commentary. French politician and leader of Front National Marine Le Pen posted a live video of her press conference, during which she delivered her official reactions to the room – a video which more than 300,000 people viewed.  First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon – long a leader in online political engagement – shared the BBC’s live video of her press conference; Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi shared his remarks from Palazzo Chigi; and President of the European Council Donald Tusk posted his remarks from Brussels.

What does this mean in the broader political debate?  It means that in addition to reading the media analysis, people have the ability to access – first-hand – the press conferences and statements delivered by our leaders in the wake of the historic vote.  As though having a seat between the correspondents, they can hear for themselves the tone in which the remarks were given; observe the length of time dedicated to the remarks; take into account the full statement as opposed to the line or two picked up for broad distribution.

This is only just the beginning of a new trend in public participation following a major political event with consequences for millions of people.  It’s my hope that in the future the connected public will have access not only to the press conferences and statements, but also to a more heartfelt, personal reaction by the people who are elected or appointed to represent them in positions of power.  And hopefully, in the longer term, more access to information directly from these voices will empower people to be more closely and more critically involved in the decisions that political leaders make on their behalf.  The results of the referendum are currently under heated debate amongst those who voted In and those who voted Out, but the primary source revolution can only be a positive trend in bringing leaders and citizens closer together in a more inclusive world.


Elizabeth Linder is a member of the Board of Trustees at the Asia Scotland Institute.  She is Facebook’s former Politics & Government Specialist for the Europe, Middle East & Africa region and the Founder and CEO of The Conversational Century.

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