Top of the Tree


Published in the Oxonian Globalist.
Can Twitter truly transform how the political agenda is set?

Winston Churchill once told an audience, “I’m going to give a long speech today. I haven’t had time to prepare a short one.” Churchill’s quip – itself consisting of 81 characters – begs the question of how well the great orator would have handled the rise of Twitter, the very popular social network that limits the length of posts, or ‘tweets’, at 140 keystrokes.

The argument that Twitter is revolutionising the political landscape is hard to deny. Twitter has permeated the highest echelons of the most elite of institutions: the Papacy and the British Monarchy, and even wars, seemingly, are now fought in part on Twitter: the Israeli Defence Forces’ PR offensive during last November’s conflict seemed almost as sophisticated as its missile defence shield.

So perhaps Sir Winston would, after all, have compressed some of his most famous wartime perorations into tweets. Certainly today’s generation of political leaders has started to grasp the power of the platform. Of the 650 members of the House of Commons, 409 have accounts, and while some MPs treat it merely as an extension of their constituency website, others have made more innovative uses of the platform. Cambridge MP Julian Huppert even went as far as crowd-sourcing topics for a question to the Prime Minister in a recent debate.

Perhaps the most innovative use of Twitter by an elected official, however, comes from the other side of the Atlantic. Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker invites and routinely responds to all manner of comments and complaints from his constituents. These range from the mundane, such as fixing traffic lights and potholes, to the faintly heroic, as with the time he responded to a tweet reporting an injured dog by rescuing the animal himself. No matter what the issue, however, Booker is careful to interact in such a way that all his followers can see his diligence.

Everyone has an agenda

But politicians, even those like Booker who use Twitter to great effect, represent only the tip of the iceberg. Of greater importance for the democratic process, perhaps, is the novel form of fast-paced, shorthand political debate that Twitter has enabled, in which thousands of journalists, pundits and policy makers participate.

Thanks in part to Twitter’s technical architecture, in which tweets are public by default and any user can freely follow any other, it can sometimes feel as if the doors to the old smoke-filled rooms of the press pack and political elite have been pulled slightly ajar. The process of agenda-setting, first articulated in 1922 by Walter Lippman as an explanation of the pervasive influence of the news media over public opinion, may therefore be changing radically.

Because all Twitter accounts are created equal, ordinary users, or what Jay Rosen has dubbed ‘the people formerly known as the audience’, can now, at least in theory, participate on a level playing field with political and media elites. New forms of interaction, such as the ability to ‘mention’ other users and ‘retweet’ their posts, has enabled a much more dynamic relationship between media elites and citizens at large. Whereas in the old media world, ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns were the only real outlet for interaction with readers, journalists now often find themselves defending their work and opinions on Twitter. In addition, the retweet system makes it easier for the thoughts of ordinary users to be spread far beyond their original audience.

In reality, however the pre-existing readership and renown that media personalities bring to Twitter offer a clear advantage in the fight to be heard. Many of the giants of old media have fought to consolidate their prominence on Twitter: Rupert Murdoch’s 400,000 followers represent more than the circulation of his flagship Times newspaper,  while Piers Morgan may well have as much influence over his 3.2 million Twitter followers as he did as editor of the Daily Mirror.

If a tweet falls in a forest…

There is therefore certainly a distinction to be made between the ability to speak, which Twitter undeniably permits, and the ability to be heard, which is rather more difficult to achieve, a point made by Matthew Hindman in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy. For ordinary users with no pre-existing readership or huge networks of media contacts, tweeting with a small number of followers might feel like shouting off the edge of a cliff-face. Unlike ‘friending’ on Facebook, the system of ‘following’ on Twitter is asymmetrical, so if User A follows User B, User B is neither technically required nor socially obligated to reciprocate. With each unreciprocated act of following, then, the network becomes a little less equal and more skewed towards the most popular users. It would not therefore be surprising to see the hierarchical structures of the offline world gradually replicate themselves on Twitter. Some voices will always be louder than others, no matter the medium.

Nonetheless, the simple fact that relevant, well-crafted thoughts from members of the public can enter the public domain, by being retweeted or responded to by a more prominent user, certainly holds the potential for engendering a more engaged citizenry and a more responsive elite. The realisation of such potential depends largely on whether the platform will retain its informal, interactive flavour, or whether politicians, media barons and commercial actors will be capable of making such sophisticated use of  it so as to stifle ordinary debate. In the meantime, those who deride Twitter as just a lot of chirping may be missing a fundamental change in how public opinion is formed.

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