By Jade Taylor
Whilst Twitter was once a forum for meme exchange, pastime confab between digital comrades and means of mindless promulgation, it has now fashioned itself into a prominent ‘broadcasting’ network. Top stories are now virtually synonymous to breaking news, trending has become instrumental in journalistic agenda setting and hashtags present a new and convenient system for social activism. So how is a platform, less than 15 years young, outranking long-established news channels in the race for real-time reportage and what does this mean for political integrity?
Twitter’s penchant for politics became evident in its embryonic years during Obama’s first presidential campaign. As a fervent tweeter and the platform’s most followed user, the former President arguably inaugurated Twitter’s political ascendency with 12 words, 2 lines and a mere 1,090 retweets. The tweet read,
‘‘Thinking we’re only one signature away from ending the war in Iraq’’.
This altered the trajectory of the young platform, taking it from a casual microblogging service to a political media ecosystem. According to @Twiplomacy, there are over 4,000 state embassies with a Twitter presence; The UK Foreign Office has the largest Twiplomatic network, with over 200 ambassadors signed up to the app. It is therefore evident that the Twittersphere has become a crucial site for bureaucratic discourse and deliberation, with many now turning away from traditional news for political apprise. The question remains then, what are the implications of the decline of mainstream media in light of Twitter’s journalistic ascendancy?
There is an argument to be made that Twitter reportage challenges the linear top-down approach of political communication, which is often propagated by mainstream news. Unlike conventional media, Twitter offers a forum for dialogism between individuals and political leaders, which helps in bridging the democratic deficit. This digital form of interaction has seen an upsurge of political engagement amongst young people, thus suggests there is merit to the partisan dimension of the app. Though can this really be true when political news is confined to 140 characters? Can we really assume this piecemeal form of electoral education is sufficiently equipping the body politic? This article sustains that Twitter simply serves as a medium for ideological stubbornness. Algorithms determine viewer content, putting users in touch with those of similar opinion through Recommended, Top Tweets and In Case You Missed It. Though, this does little for political pluralism and consensus building. Instead, it begets polarization wherein like-for-like minds are able to fructify and embolden their own political leanings, rather than engage with informative discussion. The semantics around the words following or follower are in themselves suggestive of some form of discipleship, discouraging interaction with those that fall outside one’s own political inclinations. Centrality is all but forbidden; to gain online allies one must first choose a side on the colloquially termed ‘twitter brigade’. Mainstream journalism is by no means immune to political biases, though unlike social media, it doesn’t bind viewers to a hostile space in which the plausibility of viewpoints is measured according to their propensity to accrue likes or retweets.
A further consequence of the editorial landscape tilting away from traditional news and towards digital intermediaries, lies in the integrity of political debate. Trending stories signal the agendas of twitter politicians and their respective followers, using hashtags as a battle cry to unite audiences. True, hashtag activism can be critical for marginalized groups, who use the symbol as a means of cognisance and social solidarity. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements illustrate this effectively. However, just as they rise rapidly to prominence, they are vulnerable to the fluctuation that often accompanies flash politics. Support for such populist movements is often superficial, with users opting for meme politicking to ‘stay woke’, rather than using credible research to inform views. It is no surprise that official representatives harness the most online engagement when their tweets are humored or jaunty. Hilary Clinton showed this to be true in her rebuttal to Donald Trump in 2016, when he accused her of being ‘‘crooked.’’ Clinton’s response read:
‘‘Delete your account.’’
The twitter burn sparked a social media war, prompting reactions from across the political spectrum. From ‘‘yaaaas Queen, go feminism’’ to ‘‘you can just tell she's good in bed’’, the bulk of responses showed to be little more than an online popularity contest of who could amass the most followers, retweets or likes. Often users utilized their 5-minute twitter fame for self-aggrandizement, through addendums such as ‘‘whilst you’re here, check out my Soundcloud’’. It leads me to ponder whether political engagement on the app is less about belief systems and more a question of conformity to trends, to embolden one’s social standing.
A final issue with the political Twitter space, is the vast body of misinformation that digital communication breeds. This primarily takes the form of ‘fake news’, wherein users with a strong presence on the platform are able to spout falsehoods whilst claiming factuality. The World Health Organisation (WHO) terms this an ‘infodemic’, referring to the rapid and far-reaching spread of inaccurate information. The Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly prevalent in highlighting how elected officials can manipulate ambiguities in scientific knowledge and soft statistics, allowing for some creative liberties in their narration of the virus. Donald Trump’s infamous reference to Covid-19 as ‘the China Virus’ was indeed contributory to the racialized preconceptions held - and in part ‘verified’ by his Tweet - by the general public. Whilst public service broadcasters are not immune to factual inaccuracy or are always entirely substantiated, they do have some editorial procedure which prevent impulsive statements by national representatives.
We are now witnessing a movement towards ‘fact-checkers’ on Twitter fallacies, which flag tweets that espouse incorrect information that could have a negative social impact. This became evident in the run up to the Presidential Election in the United States, when Trump relentlessly relayed the narrative that the Democrats were falsifying election data. His tweets were censored, and his account was later suspended for his pivotal role in the Capitol riots. These are clear indicators that social media platforms are taking measures to limit their negative political impacts and it would be interesting to revisit this article in the future to reflect upon how effective these have been.