Tweets against cynicism

The dialogue between politicians and the general public

By Bart Braun

The combination of social media and politicians is an excellent way of connecting citizens to policy-
makers. At least, it is in theory – but does it really work like that?

“Thanks to Twitter, politics can be discussed without journalists controlling the flow of information”, says political scientist Rebekah Tromble (@RebekahKTromble). “Politicians can address the public directly, and vice versa. At least, that’s what it promises. But does it really work like that?”

Her recent article in the journal New Media & Society describes her quest for the answer to that question. She examined a set of over thirteen thousand Tweets sent by, and to, Dutch, American and British Members of Parliament. But is it really a dialogue? It’s often said that Twitter is used by politicians to call attention to themselves and by the voters to send death threats and abuse in return.

However, the truth is more complicated. According to Tromble, fifteen per cent, no less, of those Tweets contain a dialogue of sorts between politicians and citizens. “More than I would have expected.” There’s more dialogue with Dutch and British users than with American users.

“I would have thought it would be the other way round. Both the UK and the US use a first-past-the-post system, which means that the politician who gets the most votes in his or her district wins. For example, the American state of Utah is divided into four districts of about three hundred thousand voters each, which is too many to visit personally but some clever Tweets could certainly help you win round plenty of the voting public. And because you’re from the same region, you already have a connection, in theory.

“My analysis reveals that it’s the public, not the political system, that decides how people use Twitter. The American population is highly polarised, people think poorly about the political system and hate the other party’s candidates. Those who send Tweets to politicians, send unrestrained, harsh messages so politicians don’t feel like responding. Most of the criticism is not constructive, as you can see from my data: politicians who receive lots of harsh messages reply far less often. In the US, nearly all politicians receive nasty, rude messages so there’s little incentive to invest time and effort in finding that one constructive tweet and replying to it.”

Not that Dutch political Twitter circles are full of traditional Dutch cosiness – Geert Wilders is sent hundreds of death threats every month – but still, things are different here. And in the UK? “My data set dates from before the Brexit referendum. I would just love to do my research again to see if Twitter behaviour has changed now that Great Britain is more polarised. It would be a great way to test my hypothesis.”

But hasn’t political debate become more polarised due to social media?

Tromble, who comes from the American state Wyoming, believes that “the trend didn’t start on social media. In the US, talk radio and the cable news companies like Fox News were the first to focus mainly on one political view and demonize other opinions. The question is whether social media is making the problem worse. One study suggests that the problems of filter bubbles and echo chambers are not as large as many people believe. You are more likely to come across a political view that deviates from yours online than in real life. We don’t actually talk much about politics in real life, and when we do, it’s usually with people we mostly agree with. On the other hand, we see a lot of hostile messages. Smaller studies suggest that such aggressive shit posts reinforce the political polarisation, but we really need to do more research.”

Despite all the hatred and animosity, the political scientist claims that politicians should use social media.

Obviously, it’s an effective way of getting your message across, but it is a very good way of starting a debate, too. “My colleague Michael Geffert and I examined how people felt about a fictitious politician whose messages we showed them. They could send the politician questions and when he responded seriously, instead of ignoring them or sending a standard reply, people actually changed their opinion. The same thing happened when we asked Democrats about a fictitious Republican politician and vice versa.”

Local politics, like municipal councils, are the “perfect environment” for trying out such democratic ideas, according to Tromble. “Show them that you reply to questions and that you take people seriously. It takes time, but you can achieve great things. Even if people don’t vote for you, it can presumably – I still need to do more research – make them less cynical about politics. At the moment, there is an unhealthy amount of cynicism about and if one-to-one dialogue can help counter it, it would be an improvement.”

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