The first half of 2009 has been a turning point for the micro-blogging site Twitter in a political context. During public riots in the aftermath of both the election in Moldova, and more prominently, the Iranian election on June 12, 2009, Twitter was acknowledged to have been playing a key role in the political communication, as a tool for activists and by shaping the international public opinion about the events. This article by Polis Summer School student Ida Ebbensgaard asks to what extent citizens are being politically empowered by having access to Twitter. She points out that there are severe limits to Twitter’s political power, but she identifies its critical role as a kind of whistleblower to mainstream media.
Twitter: political Whistleblower by Ida Ebbensgaard
Twitter1 is a social networking site with a service that enables users to send and read short messages, “tweets”. Tweets are limited to 140 characters and are accessible to any other user of Twitter who wants to follow the person who is “tweeting”. It is free to sign up for Twitter, and there are no limits to the number of tweets each person can publish. It is assumed to have around six million unique visitors a month2, growing exponentially3.
Twitter was created in 2006 and is considered to be the third most used social network after Facebook and Myspace.4 The social networks are enjoying their success while media audience is massively leaving traditional mass media and migrate to the internet to get their news5 (Pew 2009). The potential of these social networking sites as forums for political debate has been noticed by many media professionals and researchers as well: “social networks are now a forum for political messaging”, as Jeff Jarvis puts it (in Beckett 2008:109).
Citizens expressing themselves online can be used by traditional media as an extremely powerful resource to journalism, exploiting the richness of the information from the public.
This is the core of the concept of “Networked Journalism”:
“Email, online video, websites and web forums allow activists to get their message out and then engage in a dialogue with the voters and the news media. The Internet allows journalists to do the same in their political coverage. This is Networked Journalism” (Beckett 2008:101, my italics)
News is transforming: Instead of being a linear story, top-down mediated from a mass media to the public, Beckett shows especially social networking sites are changing the news production into a multi-dimensional process, where the public can intervene at any stage in the process, allowing citizens to have direct impact on the political journalism.
The journalist is “becoming the facilitator rather than the gatekeeper” (Beckett 2008:52) by using the content accessible online. The word dialogue is stressed in the quote above, because this is a key feature in Networked Journalism: To be able to hold conversations with the audience and thereby it “shares the power of the media with the public. (Beckett 2008:71).
Another key concept is the liability of the person delivering information: ”The bloggers online currency is their trustworthiness” (Beckett 2008:63). The more anonymously the sender of the post can be, the more important is it for the receiver to be able to simply trust the sender.
But Is Twitter empowering citizens?
Let’s have a look at Twitter in this perspective. First, on the issue of ability of citizens to express themselves: The barriers for access are low. For all practical reasons, the free space available is infinite for the user. And though not any expression without limits will be tolerated, users have the possibility of expressing almost any kind of political views in a public room.
But isn’t there an overwhelming risk of ending up in a cacophony of useless and trivial information, one could argue. Yes, there is a lot of noise, but also valuable information from a broad group of citizens, the defenders of Networked Journalism will say (Beckett 2008).6
But a further investigation shows that Twitter might not be as broad a medium as expected. A recent study made from Harvard Business School shows that the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets7. So the concentration of users actually contributing is even higher than for the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.
Many sign up for Twitter, but never come back to the site again. In fact, the median lifetime number of tweets per user is 1 tweet. As the researchers concludes in a summary:
“Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network”8
This is indeed also how it is used by politicians: Twitter as a personalized mass media, sending out short messages to the followers, almost like a fanzine. Though technically possible to a certain degree to address answers and comments to tweets, “re-tweet”, Twitter remains for all practical reasons a non-dialogical media.
An interesting chart of the age distribution of Twitter users reveals another interesting fact. The youngest target group that today is skipping the mainstream media (under age 25) is underrepresented on Twitter:9 If true, it is more likely that granddad tweets than that the grandson does. And recently, in a highly discussed paper from Morgan Stanley, a 15-year old school boy ditched Twitter a media his age group would not use10. An older age group is of course not necessarily a problem in itself. It has been suggested, that there was a connection between the age distribution and the hypothesis that Twitter is used for business purposes by about 50 percent of its users. In that case, one could suspect that Twitter is turning into a marketing tool instead of an actual social network, but this assumption requires further research to be confirmed.
Turning to the content of the tweets, another obvious problem is the format of twitting. What in one context is a strength for Twitter, the shortness and immediateness, becomes an obstacle in a political discourse. A maximum of 140 characters for each tweet makes it difficult to give any kind of political argument, even of the lowest level of complexity. And even if the information is relevant, how can the followers know that it is actually true? There is no revision of the content of Twitter, and misunderstandings, exaggerations and simple false information are published side by side with true.11
For a journalist to conduct networked journalism, it is crucial to fact check the information, especially on a subject as controversial as the Iranian election, where Twitter was used intensively. But at the same time, the protesters in Iran needed anonymity to disseminate information because of the reprisals of the Iranian authorities. This meant that mainstream media had to take their reservations for the content stemming from Twitter.
Problem of bias
Another point was the problem with bias: As more people have noted, the Iranians using Twitter during the riots belonged to the tech-savvy, English-speaking, upper class of the population where the opposition’s election candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi was much more popular than in the population as total. This bias was reinforced on Twitter:12
So, Twitter could be seen as a non-conversational, superficial, biased media with serious issues concerning the reliability. These are not characteristics that are easily combined with quality journalism, networked or not. At its best, Twitter would then be a tool for journalists that are using the tweets as extremely short mediated vox pops or to gauge the interest of a subject within a special segment.
Cat and mouse
But how could Noam Cohen then conclude in New York Times that “Twitter did prove to be a crucial tool in the cat-and-mouse game between the opposition and the government over enlisting world opinion”?13 The explanation could be found elsewhere than expected: A study in New Scientist (Palmer 2008) suggests that Twitter is much more useful than mainstream media during emergencies, because the news were up-to-date, less sensational and more detailed than other sources.14
Palmers study is not about political journalism. But the analogy is striking: In a situation where political journalism reaches a state that is to compare to an emergency situation and flows of information are made difficult, Twitter is excellent because of its simple way of delivering clustered information15 that are difficult to obtain elsewhere from, even in an anonymously form. This was the case after the Iranian election. Twitter became a whistleblower media.16 In the perspective, the Iranian Election became a beautiful case of the dynamic processes of Networked Journalism (Beckett 2008).
The social network Twitter undoubtedly increases the ability for citizens to express themselves, also in a political way, as long as the expression is kept within the strict format of 140 characters. Twitter played an important role during the Iranian election in June 2009, because the situation had some of the same characteristics as an emergency – and in this special context, Twitter actually was able to empower the Iranian citizens. But as a daily tool for journalists doing Networked Journalism, it has serious constraints and should be used cautiously, and Twitters ability to enhance citizen’s political influence and empower them politically is severely limited.
1 Main source: Wikipedia, 2009, Twitter, Wikimedia Foundation, St. Petersburg, FL, viewed July 19, 2009 < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter>
2 Twitter does not publish the number of active accounts.
3 Here quoted from Searchenginewatch.com, viewed July 19, 2009. <http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/090408-122803>
4 Ranked by Compete.com in January 2009, viewed July 19, 2009 <http://blog.compete.com/2009/02/09/facebook-myspace-twitter-social-network/>
5 According to Pew Report for 2009, the number of Americans who regularly go online for news jumped 19% in the last two years.
6 As Noam Cohen has put it: “it turns out that when a million people stare at their navels, more than a few of them will also notice that the ground is shaking, the plane is nosediving, the police are shooting.”. Quoted on Editors Weblog: “Twitter for journalists and newsrooms: sourcing, publicising, connecting”, World Editors Forum, posted June 29, 2009 by Emma Heald. Viewed July 19, 2009. <http://www.editorsweblog.org/analysis/2009/06/twitter_for_journalists_and_newsrooms_so.php>
7 In its own way, the elitist approach to public debate can be seen as resembling Habermas’ vision of the coffee houses in London (Habermas 1962), an open place for debate with only for a little group of people participating.
8 “New Twitter research: Men follow Men and Nobody Tweets”, Harvard Business Publishing posted by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, posted June 1, 2009, viewed July 19, 2009. <http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2009/06/new_twitter_research_men_follo.html>
9 Here quoted from Searchenginewatch.com, viewed July 19, 2009. http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/090408-122803
10 See for instance Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/13/twitter-teenage-media-habits
11 An example: Two English university graduates recently set up a Twitter account in the name of the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, and started to tweet in his name. Also during the Iranian election, incorrect information was spread over Twitter. This caused a debate among journalists for the need to verify sources, see for instance: http://www.editorsweblog.org/newsrooms_and_journalism/2009/07/fake_twitter_account_for_david_miliband.php
12 During the riots, many users changed their profile pictures into a green square, indicating support for the opposition which used green as their colour. “Sea of Green” was the name of this relative harmless and non-committal way of expressing sympathy. It delivered some headlines in the mainstream media, but there is no evidence that it had any real political impact.
14 Palmer (2008) concludes about the fires in South California in October 2007: “[Social media, especially Twitter] ended up gathering together up-to-the-minute information from far-flung rural areas that the media and the emergency services were not able to reach. In addition, many residents said the media reports were biased towards metropolitan areas and focused on the sensational, while official information sources tended to be out of date.”
15 It is possible to group tweets by using ”hashtags”, a label on a tweet that indicates that it relates to a certain subject, e.g. “#iranelection”.
16 It could also be seen as a sophisticated game of “Scissor, Paper, Stone”, which fundamentally is a cycle of power:
– Twitter beats Mainstream mass media. Twitter was able to deliver important information to the world while the international journalists were banned from reporting in the streets.
– Iranian regime beats Twitter. Using classical authoritarian repression, arresting people etc., Iranian voices on Twitter became silent shortly after the beginning of the riots.
– Mainstream Media beats Iranian Regime. The Iranian government was heavily criticized internationally for the handling of the election, though president Ahmadinejad stayed in power. And the regime has not succeeded in closing Twitter down.
Beckett, Charlie (2008): SuperMedia – Saving journalism so it can save the world. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Habermas, Jürgen (1962): Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Neuwied, Berlin.
Palmer, Jason (2008): “Emergency 2.0 is coming to a website near you”, New Scientist, Magazine issue 2654, 02 May 2008. Viewed July 19, 2009. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826545.900-emergency-20-is-coming-to-a-website-near-you.html>
PEW (2009): The State of the News Media: An annual report on American Journalism, 2009. Project for Excellence in Journalism, Washington, DC, viewed July 19, 2009. <http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2009/index.htm>