Twitter users must be wary of its effects on political debate

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Twitter has always been the perfect place to live-tweet the Bachelor and follow the tweeted revelations of Jaden Smith and Zach Braff. But Twitter is not the place for making political arguments about subjects far too complex to be summed up in 140 characters. Tweets have no room for nuance and no guarantee of follow-up questions, leading people to shallow understanding of the issues and lack of counters.

Twitter is definitely the place for social commentary, such as when President Donald Trump tweeted “I have never seen a thin person drinking  Diet Coke.” But Twitter is not the place for dumbing down complicated organizations and issues. Tweets of this kind can be found in spades on Trump’s personal twitter, such as when he tweeted that “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”

Other politicians and members of the twittering electorate also tweet arguments that need more than a sentence to be fully realized. NBC correspondent Richard Engel tweeted: “obama leaving w/ high approval, but #syria war, which raged most of his presidency with inconsistent US policy, will haunt legacy overseas.” Engel makes an important argument, but one that lacks foreign sources or an explanation of how the president should have handled #syria. 

Indeed, arguing about politics on Twitter leads to a decline in complex discourse. Twitter is used by 16 percent of the adult U.S. population and at least half of those people turn to the platform for news. With the acceptance that Twitter is a viable place for political arguments to take place, the rise of TV and print news running tweets from politicians as front-page news is unsurprising. Unsurprising, but ultimately harmful.

Journalism doctoral candidate Shannon McGregor has conducted research about how candidates use Twitter. When she interviewed social media managers for campaigns she found the same sentiment repeated to her: “If we want to say something to the press, we put it on twitter.” When politicians and pundits send statements through the twitter-verse they are under no obligation to answer follow-ups or to engage with other opinions as they would at press conferences, debates or interviews.

“From the perspective of an official or candidate it’s great,” McGregor said. “Because they get to influence press coverage without having to interact with the press.” But she notes that from the press’ perspective, “it can be problematic because they aren’t able to push back directly.” The losers in this scenario are the press and the public. Sapping counter arguments from political conversation makes it more difficult for an already divided electorate to see other sides.

Still, McGregor finds benefits to Twitter. “Despite, or in spite, of all its problems, I do think the more people who are talking about politics the better,” McGregor said. 

Bethany Albertson, associate government professor and owner of her own first-rate Twitter handle, enjoys discourse on the platform. 

“Many people can find ways around 140 characters to explain a complex issue,” Albertson said. For instance, some might use two or three tweets for an argument, or link an article below.  Still, two or three sentences is insufficient for dissecting the pros and cons of foreign trade deals.  

Twitter should not be a platform divorced from politics. It is a good place for the public to express opinion, to react to debates in real time, and to disseminate #Alternativefacts memes. But it should not be a place for our politicians and pundits to hold policy arguments, because the loss of complexity that results does the public great disservice. Twitter can be an effective platform if we do not forget the necessities of political discourse, like facts and counter-arguments. We also must demand that our politicians set down their phones and engage with the press — at least once in awhile.

Doan is a Plan II and English sophomore from Fort Worth.