Twitter recently had its 7th anniversary. Most of the reflection on Twitter’s impact on the political world has focused on its ability to engender or enhance scandals, such as Anthony Weiner’s provocative photos or Rep. Steve Cohen’s tweet revealing the existence of his 24-year-old-daughter.
The fallout from these more dramatic events represent only a fraction of the potential effects a medium like Twitter could have on the political world. Yes, embarrassing personal tweets provide exciting headlines, but more importantly, Twitter opens up the social communication sphere between the general public and the political elite in a new way. Twitter offers a completely new form of many-to-one type communication, allowing users at least the chance (if not the probability) of engaging in direct conversation with leading political figures. Its implications for communication, however, go beyond engagement – some commentators see Twitter as a potential watchdog over the news media.
Exemplifying Twitter’s media watchdog potential, last week New York Times columnist Bill Keller received a barrage of criticism on Twitter for inaccuracies in a column he had written on the sequestration. Such attacks on journalistic errors – think #factcheck during the presidential debates – are common in an age of online news reporting and instantaneous fact checks.
What if Twitter had existed in 2003?
In addition to marking the 7th anniversary of Twitter, this week (March 19th) was also the 10th anniversary of the commencement of the Iraq war. What if the fact-checking Twitter community had existed during the impetus of the Iraq war? David Rohde, of the International Herald Tribune, applies Twitter’s current potential as a media watchdog to what some call the failure of the news media a decade ago regarding reports on the existence of WMDs in Iraq during 2003.
Much coverage leading up to the Iraq war was supportive of the claims that weapons of mass destruction existed. Some claim that a medium like Twitter might have served as a channel for critique of irresponsible journalism during those years. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy DC lamented that the news media in 2002-2003 “was as egregious in its failure to do its job as the U.S. intelligence community was in its failure to produce accurate intelligence on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.” Landay says that “social media would have brought far more attention to our work.”
Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert goes so far as to say that he wishes “that Twitter had been around during the winter of 2002-2003 to provide a forum for critics.” Says Boehlert, “My point is Twitter could have altered, in important ways, the media coverage, especially during the run-up to the war when the Beltway press experienced something close to collective malpractice.” The power of Twitter is that the complaint of a single constituent – or a lone fact-check on a news article – has never carried more potential for visibility and virality.
The Limits of Twitter as a Representation of the Public
The problem is that while Twitter provides a large, accessible aggregation of succinct opinions, it lends itself to irresponsible and even misleading communication – especially any reports claiming to summarize the public opinion in some way. News organizations take advantage of this easy source of infographics – especially during the 2012 election, which was dubbed the “Twitter election”. USA Today had a Twitter Election Meter, which assessed the favorability ratings of Obama and Romney, rated on a scale of 1 to 100. During the Republican primary debates, Fox News measured viewers’ reaction to each answer by combing Twitter for candidate names and specific hashtags. The Washington Post provided a side screen of fact-checks on Twitter during the presidential debates. On the Twitter blog during the debates, Adam Sharp said that “Twitter is the pulse of the campaign: where the storylines are often developed, where voters react, where communities connect and discuss.”
The problem is that Twitter does not represent an unbiased, disinterested voice – it doesn’t even represent a majority of the public. Twitter users are not a proportional representation of the general population – in terms of political views, income, or age. Only 16% of Internet users use Twitter – and less than 10% of Internet users use Twitter on a typical day, according to a 2012 Pew study. Younger people, African Americans, and urbanites are more likely to use Twitter than other groups. It is dangerous for news organizations to treat Twitter as the main outlet of public opinion – for Sharp to say that Twitter is “where voters react,” – when only 16% of Internet users (not even US citizens) use the medium? What are the implications of referring to an election as a “Twitter Election” when such a small amount of US citizens are users of the medium?
This calls into question Twitter’s potential as a forum for media critique. Various sources have highlighted the difference between the political sentiment of tweeters and polled public opinion over time. After the first presidential debate in 2012, 59% of users on Twitter supported Obama, compared to only 20% of the general population. Of the federal ruling which deemed the California law banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional, only 8% of the reaction on Twitter was negative – compared to 44% of public response. No source is completely disinterested, but we should perhaps consider Twitter’s political and demographic limitations before hailing it as a way to enforce media integrity.
The VP of Fox News Digital Jeff Misenti said that “one of the traps that we can all fall into right now is using technology to be cute.” While Twitter offers a great potential for aggregations of public opinion, and a possible forum for unique types of many-to-one communication, the way it has been utilized by the news media borders on the trite.
Twitter’s public forum provides an entirely new way of communication – it offers potential direct communication between the general public, political figures, and journalists which has never before been possible. On Twitter, a single opinion has more potential to be heard than ever before in communication history – this makes the site seem ideal for guarding against institutionalized uniformity of opinion. Because of these characteristics, perhaps Twitter could have changed the course – or at least the media coverage – of the events leading up to the Iraq war. However, the dialogue among 16% of Internet users should not be treated as a reflection of the opinions of the general population. Twitter can provide a unique forum for communication and relevant media critique, but as it and the political sphere continue to evolve, we need to remain aware of its limits.