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No, Twitter is not ruining America or American politics — just the opposite, in fact

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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

newspaper boxes

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

twitter bird tweets logo drawing

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.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Picsfive and Flickr users Shawn Campbell and George Kelly

8 Responses to “No, Twitter is not ruining America or American politics — just the opposite, in fact”

  1. Matt, we are using politician’s Twitter feeds (along with other media and historical data) to figure out their stance on issues that they haven’t voted on yet. To us, this direct communication by politicians is a good thing! And also, even if they are preaching to the choir, folks with other viewpoints have complete access to what they are saying as well. So no more sneaky (well less) kissing up to one group and changing your tune the next day for another group. Of course, sometimes the politicians do publicly say one thing and do another-but now it is way easier to track! If someone is being a consistent hypocrite with what they say vs how they vote , their listeners (and voters!) have the right to know!

    • therealguyfaux

      Isn’t the whole point less one of who the Tweeter is, as who the RE-Tweeter is?
      I’ve been to plenty of “monitoring” sites where the RT as well as the original is posted, where the RT’er is arguably more well-known that the original.

      Certain sites do it to publicize while others do it to criticize, but in any event, it is instructive to find out who influences whom and who allow themselves to be influenced.

      A Tweet that simply states “I am in favor of apple pie” is, of course, nonsense. A Tweet where, e.g, Ted Cruz links to someone and says “Read this, about apple pie” tells you who it is Ted Cruz (or more likely a staffer) follows. Then work back from that, and find out who that person/entity communicates with on any regular basis. Then work forward, and see who Cruz is communicating with, and if that person RT’s Cruz in turn.

      Sure, it might take a bit of time and effort, but you will find out where this whole apple pie “trending” might be coming from and why it is doing so now– or when did journalism become passive and not active?

      Tell me, am I missing something here?

  2. Journalists do use twitter to achieve some imagined importance. Most of their involvement with it is plastic.

    Different topic, Matt can you do a piece on the balkanization of the web? Practically everything requires a login these days, even Stumbleupon. It’s not the walled garden of apps thats the offender as it is the walled garden of all the major web players. You just can’t surf for fun anymore.

    The web is suffocating!

  3. Now even third world countries are making use of Twitter for expanding their campaigns and pushing updates to people in real time. And the greatest thing about Twitter is that the electronic, print and tv media tend to pick up updates from Twitter for their news quite frequently.

  4. From my point of view it is absolutely normal to use all the communication methods to get in touch with their audience: twiter, facebook, TV, radio …. And online is more and more attractive.

  5. Both of you are wrong , greatly overstating the importance of Twitter. The entire american press has this crazy fascination with Twitter,. I wonder how many are just average users (not journalists,politicians, companies, “celebrities”) out of the 49 mil US monthly users and , to be on topic , how many of those actually have the right to vote..
    The american press has to scale down it’s enthusiasm on Twitter ,by about 1000% , they are just so damn ridiculous.

    And to get back on topic, youtube has a much bigger impact on politics but it’s not a cool topic anymore, is it?
    As for Bump , he draws the conclusion he wants , no matter what kind of impact social media has on politics, the truth is that corporations are gaining more and more power and if social media has any power to influence politics, it is not nearly enough to offset the influence of the $.

    • Erik Schwartz

      Twitter makes journalists feel like celebrities. It hardly matters that 90% of their followers are bots, they get enough discussion on the platform that they think everyone is listening.