Essays Pub 101

Twitter as a source for political discourse

It is no secret that social media has impacted almost every aspect of our lives. Whether social media is used for shopping, communicating, job searching, or receiving the news, it is an integral part of our everyday life. In this essay, I want to delve deeper into how social media platforms create a space for political dialogue going beyond traditional news outlets. I will be looking specifically at how social media has initiated a modernized way to acquire and spread the news. As of late last year, “18% of U.S. adults say they turn most to social media for political and election news…[which is] on par with the percent who say their primary pathway is cable television (16%) or local television (16%)” (Mitchell et al., 2020, para. 4). Therefore, it is safe to say that it has fundamentally affected political information consumption. Furthermore, I will be looking explicitly at the platform Twitter, discussing both positive and negative effects the site has on producing, curating, and disseminating the news.

Firstly, I will provide a brief background on Twitter as this will provide context for why I chose this specific platform. Twitter is a microblogging service known for its “limited nature of the onscreen input field that allows users to send messages no longer than 140 characters” (Jewitt, 2009, p. 232). A microblog is a further development of a blog. A blog is a website that contains periodically published postings organized so that shown first are newer postings. A microblog allows for one to share short messages with other users and the public. Fuchs (2014) states that a microblog entails three distinctive characteristics, including (1) users having a public profile where they broadcast short public messages/updates […] (2) messages become publicly aggregated together across users; (3) users can decide whose messages they wish to receive, but not necessarily who can interact with their content (p. 8). Weblogs have “come of age, enabling anyone with the will or desire to communicate with other like-minded individuals at relatively little or no cost” (Jewitt, 2009, p. 231). All these characteristics allow for the perfect platform for people to post information and content regarding political discourse. And an excellent site for further inquiry into the affordances and shortcomings that social media has on the political dissertation. Furthermore, I chose Twitter because it is the platform from where I receive my news. 

Now, I will look at the shortcomings of Twitter as a source for political discourse. A critical element to take into consideration is the echo chamber effect. Twitter is said to be a “modern public square where many voices discuss, debate and share their views” (Wojcik & Hughes, 2019, para. 1). However, it is also well-established that Twitter echo chambers are real when it comes to political affiliation. The term echo chamber refers to “the context of social media, situations where users consume content that expresses the same point of view that users themselves hold or express” (Garimella, 2018, p. 2)

A study found that Twitter users are, to a considerable degree, exposed to political opinions that agree with their own. An algorithmic code runs Twitter, meaning that Twitter suggests topics based on what it thinks someone likes. When someone follows a Topic, related tweets, users, events, and ads will appear in their home feed. Your feed is curated specifically for you, which can be a bad thing. An example of this regarding political affiliation is that if you lean towards a specific side, chances are Twitter already knows that and filters content that caters to your beliefs only. For instance, take the topic of abortion. If you are, pro-life it is almost a guarantee that your feed will only provide news relevant to that point of view. Taking all this into consideration creates concerns that citizens are becoming more polarized about political issues. If the algorithm only feeds you content that expresses only opinions you agree with, it limits your abilities to gain a multiperspective view of the world. Overall, it is evident that Twitter and its echo chamber do not allow for learning a diverse and broad set of general political news that can be troublesome.

Now that I have discussed some shortcomings, it is only fair that I give credit where it is due. There is no dispute that social media can add an “extra dimension to reporting breaking news events” (Jewitt, 2009, p. 232). One affordance Twitter has, is being able to grant instantaneous sharing of current events and news stories. Twitter is a real-time global communications platform, and this is where its comparative advantage lies. Also, Twitter is known to have beaten traditional mainstream news outlets to breaking stories. Another positive aspect of Twitter concerning political discourse and producing, curating, and disseminating the news is the user’s ability to become producers. Social media in the web 2.0 era has allowed users to become more than just passive listeners, but rather producers of content. You do not need a journalism degree to voice your opinion or be involved in political topics online. You can be a part of the conversation, actively posting, sharing and interacting with other users. Although not everyone will view it due to the echo chamber effect, your contribution to political discussion is still valid and worthy of recognition. 

I argue that social media platforms such as Twitter are great additions to current traditional news outlets. However, they should not entirely replace them as sites for political information consumption and dialogue. Highlighted in this essay are both affordances and drawbacks of Twitter in political discourse. Although it gives everyone an equal opportunity to spread their message and produce original content, it can also seclude people from interacting with other viewpoints. 

Sources:

Fuchs, C. (2014). Twitter and Democracy: A New Public Sphere? Social Media: A Critical Introduction, 179–209.

Garimella, Kiran, Morales, Gianmarco De Francisci, Gionis, Aristides, & Mathioudakis, Michael. (2018). Political Discourse on Social Media: Echo Chambers, Gatekeepers, and the Price of Bipartisanship.

Jewitt, R. (2009). The Trouble with Twittering: Integrating Social Media into Mainstream News. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 5(3), 233.

Mitchell, A., Jurkowitz, M., Oliphant, J. B., & Shearer, E. (2020, July 30). Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. https://www.journalism.org/2020/07/30/ 

Sehl, K. (2020, May 20). How the Twitter Algorithm Works in 2020 and How to Make it Work for You. Social Media Marketing & Management Dashboard. https://blog.hootsuite.com/twitter-algorithm/. 

Wojcik, S., & Hughes, A. (2019, April 14). Sizing Up Twitter Users. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/04/24/sizing-up-twitter-users/. 

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