Vox Populi, Vox Twitter

Back in the good old days, you know, the early 1990s, the commentariat would have to poll the people for their opinions. Polling, to the uninitiated, is a costly and arduous business.

Oh, how the winds, they are a changin.

Twitter, that rapscallion of a social network to Wall Street, has helped to alleviate that problem for both politicos and the media. No longer do you need a background in stats or need a representative sample to find out what the people think about one of the new proposals for the Greek debt crisis.  It is a coup! The hashtag told us so.

Twitter has become the pulse of the people, the voice of a connected people. Daniel Kreiss, at University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, furthers the argument:

Social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for people to participate in political discourse. Political actors see the discourse on social media that develops around media events as a representation of public opinion (even though this is problematic as an empirical matter). I conclude by suggesting that, especially at extraordinary moments, public narratives about social media articulate the normative democratic ideal that these platforms create a collective social space for, and public representation of, the “people.”

But is Twitter really representative of the people’s voice?

For one, the network isn’t as heavily used as either Facebook or Instagram, and most of the growth in recent years has been among those with an annual household income of $50,000 or more, college graduates, and urbanites. In other words, it is very much the bastion of the well-to-do. As for political news, Twitter is not a common source for political news. About 14% of online Millennials got political news on Twitter, slightly higher than both Gen Xers (9%) and Baby Boomers (5%). However, Twitter is used heavily by journalists to scout out information, check for breaking news, connect with their audience, find ideas for stories and see what others are doing. Moreover, Twitter has had problems breaking out of its current user base and expanding into the larger online user base. For now, it seems, Twitter is an elite(ish) networking site.

But I am not so sure this matters. First a step back. Public opinion became a necessary component of politics at exactly that moment when other appeals to authority were being disposed. Or because their heads were being chopped off. With the fall of absolute monarchs and their divine right came the rise of another source of authority, public opinion. It should be pointed out that vox populi, vox dei doesn’t actually have a conjugated verb, so a Latine could faithfully translate it as phrase of synonyms. The voice of God. The voice of the people.

Democracy as it began in Athens was a wholly physical thing, a face-to-face forum of aired grievances; Athens didn’t even have a written constitution. By the Enlightenment, democracy had emerged to become a mass-mediated, fictive body, buttressed by newspapers and pamphlets. The people’s voice, their collective opinion, was formed and shared at a distance, enabled through communication mediums. As John Durham Peters noted, “The imagined public is not, however, imaginary: in acting upon symbolic representations of ‘the public’ the public can come to exist as a real actor.” Part of what this real actor does is determine the agenda of public and political discourse.

And so, Twitter. While it might not be statistically representative of the public, it could be symbolically representative of public opinion. In one study of the agenda setting role of Twitter, the authors found that traditional media still dominate in determining what is being discussed. However, they also found that there is a “marked difference in the degree of antipolitics sentiment expressed on social media compared to the level of negativity observed in the frame of online news stories.”

All of this meandering leads me to a wholly unsupported conclusion, one that I might not defend as I continue to read on this subject. Perhaps what Twitter does best is help to form public opinion around the anti-political, the gaps and lacks in the process. Where has the political process failed? Fill out a comment card in less than 140 characters and then press send. The essence of Twitter.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise to many. Much of politics is really just to complain about what they are or aren’t doing. This is all I could think of while reading Adam’s post this weekend. Voting isn’t so much about your voice being heard. It is about your voice being heard when you don’t like the current leadership.

Voting as falsification.

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