Live-tweeting democracy: the fantasy of representation

Twitter and the 2012 Elections: Media Practice and Politics

Whereas Facebook is a platform that treats politics as more or less taboo, Twitter’s network is made up substantially of news outlets/media organizations, political junkies and citizen journalists. This characteristic of Twitter’s population of users is partly a product of the site’s informational architecture, which makes it excellent for news content.

Twitter’s network is not oriented around personal relationships, but more around common interests in certain kinds of content. Interests are usually what drives “following”; those interested primarily in politics might follow news organizations, political organizations, pundit’s personal accounts, and other users who Tweet political content. You may also follow several diverse interests, as well as people you know personally. This creates a basic “news feed”, which like on Facebook makes up your home page on the site. Unlike Facebook, however, content published on Twitter is not only sent to your followers’ news feeds and posted on your own profile, but it is also publicly viewable to the world at large.

This content is easily searchable on Twitter, whereas you cannot search for specific content on Facebook posts; ie, I cannot search “Elections” and see all the content my friends have posted on this topic. This searchability is enhanced by a practice of meta-labeling Tweets via “hashtagging.” Here are a few examples: #Egypt, #Fiscalcliff, #TtW13 (hashtag for an upcoming event). Twitter posts take the form of 14o character “headlines” for the most part, during which certain key words may not be mentioned, thus making it useful to give these tweets coherency via hashtagging.

Hashtagging is useful in particular for reporting on live events, because the tags can organize a conversation around a very specific place and moment upon which people want to focus; the hashtag #J25 was used to organize the first day of protests in Tahrir Square on January 25th, 2011, and to provide constant updates from the Square as events unfolded. This tag, in reference to a specific day, became symbolic of a movement and is still used to this day. (For more thoughts on this, see my post on “Hashtag Revolution”.)

Although hashtags can “trend”, meaning they become so popular that they are listed on the Twitter home page for everyone to see, it is very difficult to gain this much popularity, and in general many “smaller” hashtags are almost unknowable unless you are told directly about them. Overall, this structure of information means that people are not passively exposed to diverse conversations, but must seek out specific conversations taking place on Twitter, with the knowledge of a hashtag being like a “key” that unlocks hidden conversations. In this sense, it truly does seem to be a bit of an “echo chamber”, enhancing the knowledge of people already in the know rather than making conversations more open and public. However, these hidden conversations, once accessed, are in themselves incredibly open and “democratic” in their informational structure. 

In a way, the process of  following news on Twitter is a bit like knowing about some event or piece of news that interests you, and then Googling it. The results this returns may lead you to refine your search- this is often how you can discover hashtags on Twitter. However, there is a substantial difference between the two platforms in that that Google results will typically be structured by rankings of authority and importance; major news outlets will dominate your results, and other voices only become visible by digging back within the results. Twitter is organized purely chronologically (although you may select a filtered “top tweets” feed), meaning that all voices are equally visible, depending purely on their most recent update.

Different conversations will involve different kinds of voices. The elections are a rare event, in that they spur nearly universal interest and participation from across the board in a way that few other events or topics do. This means that the content posted under #2012election came from all political view points and levels of “authority”, with content from Joe Schmo, Stephen Colbert, Katie Couric and the BBC all mixed together.

This “democratic” effect became particularly prominent during the live events of the election, including the 3 debates and election night. “Live tweeting” these events was an extremely popular practice, to the extent that it (like nearly all “trendy” things) became a joke.

stephen colbert live tweet elections 2012

live tweeting election results 2012

Just as people across the country gathered in bars or their living rooms to watch these events on TV, the hyper-connected denizens of Twitter gathered online to broadcast events as they unfolded and comment upon them, and to retweet the commentary of others. Nearly all corners of the Twitter world joined in this highly public moment…yet the openness and unfiltered nature of Twitter was its downfall here, as Tweets flew by so fast as to be nearly unreadable. Expecting this, Twitter curated several pre-made news feeds displaying only Tweets from prominent pundits and news sites. In this case, the radically democratic display of voices on Twitter simply turned into meaningless chaos when dealing with large scale democratic events.

This popular practice of live tweeting events has many potential implications. As suggested above, this kind of real-time updating quickly stops being informative and starts being simply distracting. In the case of the debates in particular, it is hard to imagine anyone was able to digest the already nearly impenetrable rhetoric of the candidates, while trying to think of the next thing to say. On top of this, many users were likely “Dual screening”, observing the dialogue both on the screen and on Twitter. Like texting and driving, one can only imagine this practice making Tweeters into terrible listeners and terrible talkers. This can be seen as a perfect example of what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism”, wherein messages are circulated purely for their own sake, not for the actually listening or understanding anything being said.

In many ways, Twitter in general and live-tweeting in particular takes on a character of pure broadcasting rather than dialogue. This is partially encouraged by the nature of Tweets as short, snappy headlines, and exacerbated by the purely temporal structure of the news feed that privileges the most recent update over any kind of quality of content.

This is particularly interesting in the context of the elections, which seemed to have a similar characteristic of dual broadcasting rather than political engagement or dialogue. In the presidential debates, this was exemplified quite literally by push for each candidate to get the most talking time, even notoriously talking over the moderator when necessary. Each candidate did little more than deny the claims of the other one, and then replace them with his own claims in an assertive tone of voice.

This kind of dialogue was mirrored perfectly in the coverage of the debates on Twitter, which consisted almost entirely of each side seizing upon anything and everything as evidence of the other side’s incompetence as a candidate.

Murray Edelman has noted the way that political spectacles are usually interpreted as evidence for whatever individuals already believe. In the case of this kind of rapid-fire live coverage, it seems even more apparent that the “results” being drawn are merely pre-determined conclusions. Twitter exacerbates this tendency to simplistic partisan broadcasting, with the only possible escape for many being a strategy of “mock the vote”, which involves a kind of disengagement from partisan framing, but also a disengagement from the importance and meaningfulness of the event as a whole.

Interestingly, live Tweets were incorporated in the TV coverage of these events on several channels. The apparent rationale for this is that Twitter is the “voice of the people”, and that by broadcasting these voices as a part of their coverage of events, these channels are enhancing the democratic dialogue surrounding the events.

ABC twitter feed screen cap live debate coverage

2012 debates ABC coverage twitter live tweets

Alongside “insta-polls” being conducted and displayed on screen, this gives the station an image of objectivity, or of turning the event coverage over to the viewers. This image is of course completely illusory; the Tweets seem to have clearly been chosen for their political neutrality, good spelling/grammar, and occasionally a moderate political insight- but no “binders full of women” jokes here. This, of course, does not reflect the majority of the voices speaking on Twitter, but is merely presenting an image of it.

There is something fairly convincing or believable about this image. The “democratic” structuring of content I have described above has become notorious, and this is part of why Twitter has been touted as fomenting movements and revolutions around the world. Twitter epitomizes, in many ways, the notorious participatory nature of the Internet, by placing the power of communication and “broadcasting” in the hands of ordinary citizens; on the streets of Tahrir, this means that individuals can go and tell the world about the events happening there, and others in Tahrir can see this evidence of community and conversation and be motivated to go join in. In the case of the presidential debates, people can see that the opinions of others are so important that they are broadcast on major TV networks, and to feel a sense of participation in that important public voice- and perhaps be more likely to voice that opinion by voting.

Yet, in many instances this “imagined community” is mostly an illusion, encouraged by the same centralized sources of power and authority as always. Apart from these major political events, “participatory media consumption” is becoming increasingly popular for all kinds of media events, particularly entertainment TV. In the era of the DVR and Netflix, Twitter is bringing back the old tradition of watching a program as it airs. Twitter provides TV fans a means to interact with their favorite program, as well as with an instant community of other viewers all watching the program at the same time.

Incidentally, this arrangement works well for both Twitter and the TV programs as well, since it boosts engagement with Twitter and dedication to the program significantly, as well as providing “consumer feedback” that can be used to make the show even more attractive to fans. This relationship seems to work well for all parties involved, and I think that one can have little problem with anything that makes watching the old “boob tube” a more active and community-based activity.

The problem arises when it comes to the relationship between Twitter and news media- in particular the 2012 elections. Unlike an event like Tahrir Square, which was a truly grassroots political movement that was largely covered by “citizen journalists” on the field, the elections (and most of U.S. news coverage as a whole) is dominated by extremely powerful media interests. Adding a highly selective stream of politically neutral Tweets to the coverage of the debates serves to emphasize the illusion of the elections and their coverage as a sort of dialogue between our political representatives and the American public- much like the illusion created by the “town hall” format for debates. Other than self-serving spectacle,  the “significance” of these broadcasted Tweets is virtually zilch.

Despite all the hype surrounding Twitter as a tool for promoting democratic dialogue and participation, it is important to remember that Twitter is still mainly a tool of the elite. A recent Pew study found that as of February 2012, 15% of U.S. adult internet users had a Twitter account, and 8% use it “on a regular day”. They suggest that 80% of U.S. adults are “Internet users”, making Twitter users approximately 12% of the U.S. adult population, and  those who use it on a daily basis less than 1% of the adult population (Smith, 2012).

Of course, we might expect that number to have gone up slightly since February 2012, and election events likely boosted these numbers as well. But these percentages are still so small that it seems to be radically dishonest to call this news medium in any way “representative”.

This all speaks to what Jodi Dean calls the “illusion of participation”. What may count as “participation” in the case of a one-way broadcast model of entertainment television does not count in the case of civic participation in the democratic process and the coverage thereof. 1    Citizens are not equivalent to “fans” of democracy.

Broadcasting live tweets of political events may be useful if it increases a sense of community and engagement for those viewers, making them more likely to follow the news and possibly to vote. But it may also be harmful if it promotes the illusion that our democracy is humming along smoothy, where the media and the state acting purely as representatives of the voice of the people- especially when the reality is that barely half of the U.S. population came out to vote in 2012, perhaps largely because many get the feeling that it doesn’t really matter either way. 

In the next section, “document the vote”, I further consider this ambivalent relationship between new media and democratic participation during the 2012 elections.

1Check out this particularly crass article by “retail marketing leader” Jordan Zimmerman, who practically beings drooling about the ROI he got from live-tweeting the presidential debates. Ironically, he claims to “hate trolls”, but I would suggest that this man seems to be basically a PR troll.

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