We all know tweeting isn’t the same as voting and that most people on Twitter are observers rather than participants. I’ve long believed, however, that Twitter has the potential to make a significant contribution to a culture of openness, inclusiveness and what it means to be a member of the body politic, and the more I scroll through my timeline, the more I see evidence that this is the case.
Here are 9 ways that Twitter is good for democracy.
1. First, and most obviously, access to Twitter is not easily controlled. We’ve seen the power of social media in exposing the brutality of regimes in Iran, then Egypt and Libya and now Syria. Information is power, and the less control governments are able to exercise over its flow, the more ordinary citizens will enjoy the freedom to question the way in which they are governed. Importantly, this doesn’t only apply to despots — it also means that the mainstream media has less control over the message.
2.Twitter brings politicians closer to the people. Not just Weinergate-style (I can’t think of any politician I’d want to get that close to), but in ways that really do matter. In many parts of the world these days, if you want to attract the attention of your friendly local public representative, you go to his or her Twitter profile.
Recently, a South African singer, Simphiwe Dana, wasn’t happy with the answers she got from Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. She took the debate to Twitter, where supporters from various ends of the political spectrum got involved. DA Spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko weighed in, tweeting:
Do twitter slacktivists who live to hurl abuse at @helenzille ever ask themselves whether an ANC head of govt would entertain their drivel?
Before Twitter, this kind of exchange was unthinkable — and there it is happening in real time, in your newsfeed.
3.Twitter gives ordinary citizens the power to influence the course of events. As I’ve already said, tweeting isn’t the same as voting. Nonetheless, the White House believes that Twitter helped the US reach a compromise over the debt ceiling. President Obama lost 36 000 followers when he asked US voters to tweet their representatives in congress to ask for a suitably hashtagged compromise, but his team believes it was worth it.
That’s real power.
4.Twitter facilitates discussion and debate. Yes, former Sowetan columnist, Eric Miyeni made like Justin Bieber and became a trending topic, but all those tweets added up to a measure of consensus on what South Africans, collectively, consider to be acceptable and what not. Political discussion and debate is common on Twitter, a healthy development because it leads to greater understanding of your fellow citizens. 140 characters might not be the ideal format for debate, but that forced brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike other platforms, debate on Twitter is generally civil. Here you see little of the abusiveness that characterises the comment facilities of most news websites.
5.Twitter gives ordinary people a voice. Just as twitter has made it easier for ordinary people to have the ear of celebrities, so it has given them greater access to political representatives. Anybody can get retweeted, and anyone’s views can be reported in the mainstream media. The distinction between ordinary views and elite opinion has become much more blurred.
6. Twitter provides a much wider variety of opinions. In the past, when we wanted to discuss the issues of the day, who would we turn to? Friends, family and people at work mostly. Some of us may have listened to talk radio and read the letters to the editor. That endless stream of tweeted opinions gives us access to a broader range of views than we would ordinarily have encountered, and this is a good thing. It’s not so easy to simply swallow what you’re given and think as you’re told any more.
7. Twitter also gives space to opinions which would otherwise be barely visible. Take Zelda La Grange, for example. As Nelson Mandela’s right hand woman, she has often been in the media over the years, but seldom quoted offering an opinion on the issues of the day. Now that she’s on Twitter, she’s got plenty to say, and you don’t have to wait for a news report to find out what she thinks about something.
8. Twitter is unmediated. If an organisation or an individual feels misrepresented by the media, all they have to do is register a profile and spread their message directly. People might still disagree with you, but at least you can say you’re putting your message across without it being interpreted first.
9.Twitter is good at reinforcing the kind of shared experiences that are central to any nation-building project. During this year’s local government elections, South Africans tweeted about when and where they voted. There was a real sense of democracy in action.
When national sports teams play, everybody has an opinion, and the feeling that, in our shared interest in whether somebody scores a goal we cleave to some kind of common sense of self, is palpable. This is the nation as “imagined community” that Benedict Anderson described back in 1983, and, on Twitter in 2011, it makes a lot of sense.
The power (and the peril) of social media lies in the fact that it makes things visible. As many have observed over the years, sunshine is an excellent disinfectant. If Twitter and other forms of social media are able to help shed light on what’s really going on in the world around us and, at the same time, get us slacktivists and desktop activists to do some more thinking for ourselves — then this can only be a good thing.