Is Twitter ruining America? That’s the somewhat hyperbolic claim made by Philip Bump in a recent piece at The Atlantic Wire, in which he argues that the social network has had a primarily negative effect on the political environment in the U.S. — in part by creating a kind of echo chamber in which partisans pay attention only to the things they already agree with. This is a variation on the “filter bubble” argument that Eli Pariser popularized in his book of the same name. But does Bump’s claim about Twitter hold any water?
The Atlantic writer starts off by looking at the recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which describes the Obama administration’s unprecedented attacks on the press over repeated leaks of classified information. But that’s not what Bump is really concerned about — instead, he seems to be arguing that social media such as Twitter, which allow politicians to connect directly with supporters, is somehow bad for the country. As he puts it:
“Buried in [the report] is a point that’s often overlooked in modern politics. Politicians and the people they lead have entered into a symbiotic exchange of information that excludes a third-party filter. And that’s almost certainly a problem.”
Independent vs. unfiltered
In the same excerpt from the report, a CNN reporter states that the Obama government is “using social media to end run the news media completely,” and argues that while open dialogue with the public outside of the usual mainstream media filters is a good thing, “if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.” Bump maintains that traditional media serves a purpose by providing an “independent perspective” that is essential for a democracy.
Bump acknowledges that politicians have always surrounded themselves with sycophants and supporters. So why is the social-web age any different? Because it is more immediate, more real-time and because there is so much of it, Bump says. The kinds of media outlets that existed in the days of Thomas Jefferson were more partisan than today, he argues — but the ability to live inside that bubble of adulation created by one’s fans wasn’t as complete.
“The amount of information and input [politicians] receive from constituents and interest groups and basically anyone anywhere in the world who has an opinion on something makes it almost impossible for them to ignore the stimuli. Today’s politicians must feel more like American Idol contestants who survive by constantly seeking our approval than statesmen who are empowered to take tough stances.”
Is this a fair representation of what Twitter and social media have done? I don’t think so. Here’s what I think we can say: Twitter and other forms of social media allow all kinds of people — including politicians — to reach out and find an audience that shares their views. Does it also allow the government to push its PR agenda? Sure. Does it allow politicians like Ted Cruz to imagine that they are reaching some vast audience when they’re just preaching to a tiny choir of fellow lunatics? Arguably it does that too.
Partisanship existed long before Twitter
At the same time, however, it’s worth remembering that Twitter also allows all of us to see those PR maneuvers and grandstanding happening in full public view, instead of being hidden away behind the scenes — and that has some very obvious public benefits. In the world that Bump imagines, the media provides “an independent perspective” that we supposedly can’t get from social media. But is that really what happens? It certainly isn’t when it involves partisan outlets like Fox News, or (some would argue) even CNN.
In fact, things were arguably even worse in the past, when journalists would hide information or manipulate stories to win favor with certain parties — or allow anonymous sources to dictate coverage of military efforts in Iraq, for example. Is that really better than what we have now? I think that’s a pretty hard case to make. Maybe politicians are too swayed by their loyal supporters on Twitter and elsewhere, and maybe there are elements of a filter bubble, but those are problems we’ve had for decades — since long before Twitter.
The hyper-sensitive and hyper-charged environment that Twitter helps to create — and the way this accelerates the political news cycle — definitely has an impact on how politics is done, and also on the way we perceive it. But I think you could just as easily argue that the transparency and lack of filters Bump is describing is a positive thing rather than a negative one.