The Internet is both a blessing and a curse for politics. On one hand, it offers unprecedented access to a global wealth of knowledge. On the other, it facilitates the spread of fake news and provides plenty of digital banana skins for the unwary.
With that in mind, here are eight websites (plus a few more) that everyone involved in politics should be familiar with. Used wisely, they will help avoid some of the more common pratfalls of online life.
One of the quickest ways to make yourself look an idiot on the Internet is to inadvertently retweet or share an urban myth. One of the simplest ways to avoid looking like an idiot is to check potential urban myths before you share them. Snopes is one of the most comprehensive databases of urban myths (and fake news), and should be your first port of call when faced with something that you’re not familiar with.
On similar lines, you want to avoid propagating badly referenced, misleading or even downright made-up information. FullFact is an independent charity that does what it says on the tin – it checks the facts behind the media stories of the day.
From a political perspective, FullFact has two crucial benefits. Firstly, it will provide you with plenty of ammunition to debunk the wilder claims made by your political opponents. Which, as any politician will know, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the role. But, just as importantly, it will help you avoid making wild and unsupportable claims yourself. Which stops you being on the receiving end of an unwanted debunking. Either way, checking facts is essential to political competence, at any level.
See also: Channel 4 FactCheck
3. The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph
Yes, I know that’s two websites. But I don’t care. That is, in fact, part of the point.
If you are involved in politics in any way, you need to keep up with the news. Broadcast media and, on the web, social media have the benefits of immediacy. But to really know what’s going on, you need to be a regular reader of professional written journalism. And the two best ways of getting that on the web, at least for UK-based news, are the Guardian and the Telegraph. And you should be reading both of them.
Why those two? Because they are the only “broadsheet” daily newspaper websites without a paywall. The Telegraph does have some material that is for subscribers only, but that’s generally opinion rather than news so you’re not missing a lot by not being able to read it. The other free-to-read news websites are either tabloids, web-only outlets or the web presence of broadcasters. And, quite simply, none of those cover news on the web in anything like the quality and depth as the broadsheet newspapers.
Why both? Because it’s equally important not to let your news be coloured by someone else’s politics. In that respect, it’s helpful that the Guardian and the Telegraph represent broadly opposite ends of the political spectrum as far as the broadsheets are concerned. Reading both will give you a more rounded view, irrespective of which of them is closer to your own political perspective.
4. Your local newspaper website(s)
I can’t link to these, obviously, as their identities will be different for everybody. But, whatever they are, they’re a valuable way of keeping an eye on what’s important in your local community. In particular, the letters page is often a more representative sample of local opinion that what you see on Facebook and Twitter (as well as, sometimes, being inadvertently hilarious or downright scary).
A lot of people shy away from Wikipedia under the mistaken impression that, being entirely crowd-sourced, it isn’t reliable. In reality, that’s not the case. There is plenty of research which shows that Wikipedia’s reliability is remarkably good. And, of course, if you do encounter errors in it, you can easily fix them yourself! More to the point, the more important a subject is, the more likely it is that Wikipedia will be both accurate and unbiased.
Wikipedia’s other big asset is its breadth of coverage. There is practically no subject too obscure for a page. And its policy of requiring content to be referenced to off-Wikipedia sites makes it an excellent starting point for research, even if not every individual page is necessarily perfect all the time.
WhatDoTheyKnow provides an easy interface for members of the public to make Freedom of Information requests to almost every public authority in the UK, all the way from parish councils to government departments.
As a politician you won’t necessarily be using WDTK to place FOI requests yourself (although it can be a useful tool for them at times). But it also allows you to keep an eye on the sort of requests that your local authorities are getting. That can be a valuable heads-up on things that may later come more directly to your attention, as well as giving an insight into the sort of things that FOI officers have to deal with.
FixMyStreet, as the name suggests, is a way for people to report problems with their local environment – not just streets, but issues such as fly-tipping, graffiti and antisocial behaviour.
As with WhatDoTheyKnow, you probably won’t need to use this so much yourself as most politicians have more direct routes to report problems. But, equally, it’s something that’s worth keeping an eye on as it gives a good overview of the sort of things that people in your area are complaining about.
Yes, really. “But”, I hear you say, “I already use Google every day. I don’t need telling to use it!”. Ah, but do you really understand how to get the most out of it?
When I was at school, I can recall being taught how to use a library. That is, taught how books were categorised and classified, and how to find what I wanted by identifying where on the shelves to look.
These days, the Internet is our library. And knowing how to find things on it is just as crucial. Understanding how to craft a search query that will take you to the material you want to see (and avoid all the stuff that the spammers are trying to steer you towards) is a key skill. For example, finding out whether a photograph really is what it purports to be in that social media post, or whether it’s just a stock photo, or tracking down the origins of something quoted in a blog or news article.
I really can’t overemphasise this. If you can master the advanced search functions of Google (or any other search engine), then it’s easy to track down real facts and reliable information. Without it, you are left at the mercy of what other people tell you.