You’ll be awake if you’re reading this but are you also woke?
Today’s experts in my recommended list research how politicians in the USA have made use of Twitter. They are Jason Gainous and Kevin Wagner, who published Tweeting to Power: the social media revolution in American politics.
Because they’ve done a lot of serious research and analysis, inevitably this is about older elections and not the presidential election in 2016. They studied the 2012 one and other previous elections so their data sets are not the most recent but it takes a lot of time to collect and analyse data, and it will be a while before there are proper, evidenced analyses of what happened in 2016. Gainous and Wagner don’t only have the numbers but looked in depth and who was doing what and how.
Their conclusions are important because they are evidence-based and help explain that what’s going on now isn’t a sudden change but a continuation. For instance, they show, depressingly, that Republicans were ahead of the game as far back as 2010. They used Twitter more to campaign, to attack opponents, to go negative, to tweet about personal stuff to put themselves in a positive light, and to tweet about policy-related issues. They did the groundwork for years, basically.
G & W also look at both sides of what they term information flows on Twitter. While politicians and their activist supporters are courting voters, voters are actively allowing themselves to be courted. Tools within Twitter such as hashtags and the ability to reach your followers’ other networks increase the reach and intensify the effect, and some politicians learnt how to use those while their opponents were stuck at the stage of thinking it was a message board. (Plenty of organisations, and I’m thinking of academic ones too, still treat Twitter that way as if what people actually want is to read corporate announcements all day long on social media.) So tags, jokes and provocations we might think are silly, childish or unprofessional could really be a sign of more knowledgeable and sophisticated control of information flows. Unfair!
(In an interview this week Gainous says Trump is a master of language.) On the consumer side G & W look at how the targets – voters – help create the information bubbles they end up with on social media, both because it’s psychologically more comfortable if you don’t have to face disagreement and because they choose to receive unmediated messages direct from politicians (or whoever crafts their tweets). A couple of chilling quotes:
‘It is in the elevation of the political actors to the role of unmediated information provider that the most lasting and substantial effect may be occurring’ and ‘people are consuming one-sided information based on their predispositions and when this information is added to the existing information, the result is crystallisation of the bias. Thus, heightened information consumption via social media should lead to more extreme attitudes.’ Tweeting to Power was published in 2014 and remember, it deals with previous elections.
Also recommended, a brief article by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg discussing Facebook information bubbles and why they might be your own fault.
And now to cheer us up, March is a good month for going out early to hear the birds singing, if the weather isn’t too bad. I went on a guided dawn chorus walk one March on One Tree Hill and was told the smallest birds start singing first as they need more hours to feed themselves. Lazy pigeons join the chorus last. To begin with you can distinguish individual songs but later, when someone asked which birds were tweeting, the guide told us it was General Cheeping. Here are some general tweeters: