Is Twitter good for democracy?

In editorial, news on May 24, 2010 at 08:10

An interesting stab at the subject, this morning in the Independent by John Rentoul.

The tombstone for the article reads “Political commentators must possess a sense of history, an ear for gossip and the courage to hold our rulers to account. I also couldn’t do it without Twitter, writes John Rentoul.”

Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, considering there was excellent, substantive political discourse and commentary prior to Twitter, the Internet – hell, even before the computer. Call me a heretic if you wish, but it’s true.

What makes Twitter unique, found Korean scientists (South Korean, presumably), is the wild-fire manner in which it spreads information.

Researchers at the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have studied Twitter and decided that it is a news medium more than a social network, but the joy of it is that it is both. I use it to keep in touch with other political journalists, politicians and other people who are interested in politics. The joy of it is its connectedness. The Korean researchers found that the average degree of separation between any two Twitterers is four. That is, information needs to pass through four hops to get from anyone with a computer or mobile phone anywhere in the world to me, from follower to follower, to someone whom I follow.

We’re not so sure, though, that is does actually qualify as a news service, per se.  For one thing there is no burden of verification, no accountability – apart from perhaps being ostracised by your peers.

Mind you, it does provide a great deal of information to the general public that allows them to make good decisions based on reasonably verifiable information.

That, of course, is one of the most important jobs of a free press; to give the public the information needed to take educated political decisions in order that they may live in a free and democratic society.

But then again, sometimes Twitter is more like a massive online Letter to the Editor. Except, it’s self-publishing, and self-propagating (to a certain extent).

That’s not news, though it is commentary. In many many cases it is very good and learned commentary, but commentary nonetheless.

Most of the time, however, Twitter is like a news service. It is different from social networks in that links are not necessarily mutual. People can choose to follow each other, but the Korean research found that four-fifths of links were one-way. This means that hub Twitterers with a lot of followers act as diffusers of news. When I started on this newspaper as a political reporter in 1995, the main source of UK “breaking news” was the Press Association wire – short bulletins of news, as it happened. Now Twitter fills that gap, as journalists and citizen-reporters let each other know when someone has left their microphone on, or has ruled out standing for the Labour leadership. When Adam Boulton started to lose his temper with Alastair Campbell on live television during the post-election negotiations, people tweeted to tell others to put Sky News on – to catch the best bits. William Hague announced that the talks with the Liberal Democrats were back on on Twitter. It is a way for politicians to speak to – or beyond – the conventional media. But it also offers journalists other ways of reporting.

Ding! Yes, it does offer a pretty unique tool to journalists.  A good and important one at that.  It’s free.  Freely available.  Used at the popular level. Subject to the editorial opinion of the reading public, but free of the corporate editorial line – to some extent.

It may just be one of the most important – and simple – defenders of freedom and democracy since the blog.

  1. Let’s face it – most Twitter users are just that – USERS!
    They don’t actually read the posts, they’re more interested in getting their message out, and nothing wrong with that.

    Unless you are in the personality ‘niche’ like @stephenfry or perhaps @pleasurellis the chances of your Tweet going viral are pretty slim.

    There are a lot of political Tweeters going at it hammer and tong, but check their ‘Search’ pages and you’ll see not many of their posts get Re-Tweeted, which is what you need for your Tweets to go viral.

    Great little blog you got here by the way 🙂

    How do YOU find your Twit-Account working for you?


  2. Well, mine isn’t really doing much, to be honest. It’s really just entertainment – for the moment. A little arm-chair commentary and drive-by slaps.

    But, I’ve really only gotten “into” Twitter; in the sense that I’ve watched it for some time, but only really began to use it after the 2010 election campaign kicked off.

    From what I’ve seen, though, the major users seem to see it as a tool to point people toward their blogs or websites (thank you AP for legalising that word).

    I wish I had a more learned, informed opinion on it, but frankly – at the end of the election – I just don’t know.


  3. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, by the way. In the midst of a move from West Yorkshire down to the sunny south.

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