Saturday, August 22, 2009

Twitter, Conservatives, and How to Think About the Internet and Democracy


CNN reports that conservatives have learned how to use Twitter for organizing better than liberals have. Ron Chusid argues that this makes sense because "[t]he conservative movement is essentially a bumper sticker ideology" whereas "[i]n the blogosphere it is common to have posts with links to supporting evidence and the information is often open to debate in the comments and from other blogs. The blogosphere is the on line medium for those who have coherent arguments and the facts to back them up."

This is, I think, entirely the wrong conclusion to draw from this story. My thanks to Ron for giving me an opportunity to use his comment to explain what I've been thinking recently about Internet tools and politics and the relationship between the Internet and democracy.

First, the fact that (some) conservatives have found out how to use Twitter effectively tells us almost nothing about how conservatives reason or deliberate. The conservative blogosphere is fully of detailed arguments about every kind of subject with plenty of links to evidence. If you are a liberal, you may not like these arguments, or how evidence is marshaled to support them, but that is another matter entirely.

Despite this CNN story, it is not clear to me that liberals and conservatives actually have differential rates for using Twitter for political purposes. Even it this is the case, I doubt it tells us anything about liberals and conservatives other that a contingent fact about a particular moment in the adoption of new technologies for certain political purposes.

That is, the story tells us only that some members of the conservative movement have found Twitter useful in certain ways, mostly for organizing and for promoting solidarity, and liberals haven't yet used it as much for those purposes.

The key point is to understand that Twitter, like other communications media, has particular affordances-- that is, things it lets you do. As a medium of communication, Twitter does some things better than others, and as people experiment with it, they find how to use it in multiple ways in politics. Different people find out how to use and innovate with new media at different times, and then other people, learning from their example, imitate those uses and innovate new ones.

It is not surprising that members of one political movement will gravitate to a new medium to see if it can give them some sort of advantage. Eventually, people with a different politics see how it can be done and they adopt the most successful techniques, perhaps doing further innovation along the way.

Thus, a better way of understanding this story about Twitter and conservatives is as a story about the contingent history of innovation and imitation. Groups leapfrog each other by adopting new media and new media techniques in order to gain an advantage. Conservatives used the end of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s to experiment with talk radio as a political medium and they were also early adopters of blogs; then liberals leapfrogged by discovering how to use blogs and social software for organization, community formation, and fundraising. Now (some) conservatives are leapfrogging (some) liberals by experimenting with Twitter.

Twitter can be used for many purposes, but one thing it is good for is quick communication that can include links to longer discussions. For this reason, it is better for organizing and for quick reports than for argument and deliberation.

Twitter is excellent for giving short comments or orders or short reports to inform a mass of people. Twitter was used during the recent Iranian uprising because that is what people needed. (And it was not because they were either liberal or conservative-- it was because they needed tools to organize and broadcast). Twitter gives short bits of information to those who need such short bits. One does not deliberate or debate on Twitter; rather one summarizes, announces a conclusion, and then links to a longer discussion (or not at all.)

Some conservatives, especially those in politics, may have gravitated to Twitter because this is the sort of communicative tool they found useful for their organizing needs, not because they don't know how to think or reason or because they don't like serious debate.

I suspect one might try to argue that it is noteworthy that conservatives have pioneered talk radio and the use of Twitter, while liberals have pioneered different social networking and organization tools like the various tools used by (for example) Daily Kos, and Act Blue.

From this one might draw some important conclusions about how contemporary liberals and conservatives organize politically. But one could not draw any important conclusions about how they reason or deliberate.

This brings me to a larger issue. There is a very familiar fallacy I have found repeatedly in studies of the Internet and democracy. People assume that the primary way to measure how the Internet affects democracy is to ask how Internet media affect deliberation or can be used for the purposes of deliberation. They assume that Internet media must be judged in terms of their contribution to or effects on deliberation because they incorrectly conflate democracy with democratic deliberation. When they discover that certain Internet tools and certain Internet media are not particularly well suited for deliberation, they conclude that the Internet (as a whole!) harms democracy.

This form of reasoning is a fallacy in several ways. First, democracy is far more than deliberation. It is a series of interlocking and mutually supportive activities including expression, debate, dissent, protest, organizing, solidarity formation, fundraising, voting, and governing. Existing Internet media are quite good at some of these tasks, less good at others.

Second, the Internet is not one medium but many, and new media are being created using digital networks all the time, and those already existing are plastic and can often be adapted to new uses. Therefore it is a mistake to conclude that "the Internet" is bad for democracy because certain existing media are currently well adapted for certain purposes but not others.

In this case, some conservatives have found that Twitter is quite good for reaching supporters, organizing them, and building solidarity. For all I know it may turn out to be useful for fundraising purposes too. One should not conclude from this either (1) that conservatives don't know how to reason or deliberate because they like to use Twitter, or (2) that because Twitter is not a tool for deliberation it is therefore dumbing down politics or that it is bad for democracy, or (3) that because a particular Internet medium-- namely Twitter-- has these effects "the Internet" as a whole is good or bad for democracy.

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