Twitter’s revolutionary potential has been wasted

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign violated every norm and principle that we have come to take as law over the past century in politics. While commentators have spoken for decades about the Republicans’ need to form a broad-church in their electoral base, Trump went out of his way to mock, insult and offend the vast majority of Americans. Yet the most surprising thing about this presidential campaign, headed by a man with no political experience who boasted about ‘grabbing women in the pussy’, is that it worked. Trump took pride in being hated, and Twitter provided the perfect means for this uncivil discourse.

Twitter allowed Trump to communicate directly with tens of millions of potential voters and commentators, bypassing the more traditional forms of political communication and more importantly, the filtering and ‘cleansing’ function of the RNC. Twitter made Trump a candidate who could not be controlled or contained. The top-down approach to political communication, dominated and controlled by party elites in smoke-filled rooms, is facing extinction as social media provides a monumental platform for the unheard masses to speak their mind. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said that Twitter allows Trump a “direct pipeline to the American people, where he can talk back and forth”. This organic, anarchic nature of social media has been utilised by everyone from the Tea Party to the Occupy Movement, which relied on Twitter for the coordination of direct action and amplification of its messages.

The liberating function of Twitter seems to provide a potential ailment to our weakening democracy, allowing for increased dialogue between politicians and the public they supposedly represent. In a 24-hour cycle, individuals can struggle to stay informed on current affairs, so bulletpoint headlines simplifying complex situations down to their barest bones seems the best way of cultivating an informed electorate. Whilst this seems theoretically appealing, too often the reality is Twitter feeds dominated by fake or sensationalist headlines, oversimplifying the political climate and placating our desire for civic engagement without leaving us any better informed or our politicians any better scrutinised.

One of Twitter’s own engineers, Marina Zhao, tweeted on the 9th November that “Twitter helped in promoting Trump. Twitter helped in spreading falsehoods and lies.”

Twitter has exacerbated the immediately gratifying soundbite nature of political discourse which has come to dominate in recent years. One-hundred-and-forty characters is sufficient for broad stroke declarations on policy, but withholds even the most media savvy campaign staffer from saying anything meaningful or substantive on the issues. Twitter is admittedly not so much the cause of this epidemic, as it is a symptom of our society’s declining attention span. Political campaigns across the world are turning to snappy slogans to attract voters, and as the ‘£350 million a week’ we were promised for our NHS has demonstrated, increasingly these slogans are utilising alternative facts to get their messages across. Sensationalist headlines travel quickly and costlessly, regardless of how ‘post-truth’ the nature of the news is. Compare The Independent article claiming that Oxford University students were “told to use gender neutral pronoun ‘ze’”, which was shared over 37,000 times across social media, with the redacted article posted a day later, which was shared just 31 times.

But the potentially pernicious impact of Twitter on politics goes further, because while hashtags and retweets can be utilised for fact-checking and political commentary, they can, and have, been taken over by trolls to target their victims more effectively. Alt right users have used #TrumpEffect to call attention to posts highlighting white people harassing and attacking non-white people, so that such acts can be laughed at and celebrated. Major American white nationalist movements on Twitter have seen a 600% increase in followers in the past five years, whilst the darling of the alt right movement, Donald Trump, has the 47th most followed account on Twitter. One of Twitter’s own engineers, Marina Zhao, tweeted on the 9th November that “Twitter helped in promoting Trump. Twitter helped in spreading falsehoods and lies.”

Twitter holds great potential to promote mass participation in political discourse, but such potential should not be mistaken for the reality we face. For better or worse, Twitter has shaken up the genteel inertia of the political establishment, and put power back in the hands of the people. We must just be careful to remember that with great power comes great responsibility.