Twitter, the shoe-fitting fluoroscope of democracy

There is a small revolt against Twitter brewing among some journalists, who are recognizing the structural pitfalls of the social media platform.

Not so long ago, it was assumed that being able to post updates in real-time opened up new opportunities to inform and be informed. But the reality, in recent years, points in the other direction.

A shoe fitting fluoroscope (Wisc. HS)

The ability to post updates in real-time instead creates endless misunderstandings, distraction, diversion and error. It provides vast new spaces for disinformation and propaganda to dominate and drive discussion. Oh, and it’s somewhat addictive, too.

Giving the example of the US high school students who either threatened or didn’t threaten the native American activists at a demonstration in Washington this month, New York Times commentator Farhad Manjoo writes: “The Covington saga illustrates how every day the media’s favorite social network [Twitter] tugs journalists deeper into the rip currents of tribal melodrama, short-circuiting our better instincts in favor of mob- and bot-driven groupthink….Instead of curious, intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs, Twitter regularly turns many in the news — myself included — into knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause, misspelled presidential missive or targeted-influence campaign.”

How did journalism come to accept the role of social media in its process? The internet has made so much information so inexpensive to consume, including journalism. With the business model of journalism thus broken, the companies (and journalists) rapidly embraced the promise of social media. And they did so with a presumption of progress associated with new technology.

If the last two years have shown anything, though, it’s that for democracy to function, its key players – journalists, politicians, an informed public need to reconsider whether the technology actually supports or hinders democracy.

Highly debatable on Twitter – but what does it resolve?

I’d argue that in its current form social media in general (and Twitter specifically) is hurting democracy.  But like earlier technology misapplied, such as X-rays used for shoe fitting, there is a lag to recognizing the mismatch between capabilities and results.

Manjoo writes that Twitter is today “the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.”

That’s a lot of energy expended fighting battles in an attack-only platform unsuited for compromise. In fact, like the spam that dominates email today, the volume of disinformation on social media may eclipse the volume of useful, factual information. It’s not just the volume of bad information, but that social media distorts underlying values needed for liberal democracy, too

This is a point Manjoo makes, too: “the tide of Twitter umbrage narrows one’s gaze and discourages empathy. There’s never any time to wait to get out your take: fear of missing out, which is Twitter’s primary sensibility, requires that everyone offer an opinion before much is known — because by the time more is known, Twitter will already have moved on to something else.”

That doesn’t mean those who value democracy should turn away from social media. But the people of open democracies should recognize what social media is good for and what it’s not good for.

Years ago shoe-sellers put shoe-fitting fluoroscopes in their stores so customers could examine how well shoes fit. Basically, customers – and employees – were exposing themselves to not insignificant amounts of radiation to solve what was marginal problem.

Today that cavalier use of x-ray radiology is almost unthinkable.

Social media in general and Twitter in particular are possibly the shoe-fitting fluoroscope of democracy today; a technology that allows underinformed, highly-emotive, combative over-communication about issues that instead require sensible deliberation and compromise.

In part, the presumption of progress explains how journalists and the informed public could make this mistake. What’s not so easy to understand is how long thoughtful citizens in a society will look to this technology to solve the problem of sensible political communication in a democracy.

Looking ahead, we can instead grow reliable information networks outside of Twitter, and create secure networks where intelligent, reasoned ideas can be discussed, to further the debate that liberal democracy requires. This point should be stressed: not just for journalists, but political candidates and parties. They will all need to grow their own networks of secure communication to enable a sensible debate democracy relies on.

Until then, it’s as if the best minds of a generation are willingly radiating their feet. They’re doing this not because it’s a healthy thing to do but because the technology exists and no one has realized how ill-suited that technology in its current form is for the task of practical political debate.

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