Those who still romanticize the internet see it as a wonderfully egalitarian platform that lifts marginalized voices up out of obscurity and stands them toe-to-toe with the moneyed and the powerful. The rest of us know that things are a lot more complicated, especially on major social-media platforms like Twitter, and a recently released study helps show why.
For the study, posted last month to PLOS ONE, researchers examined the Twitter behavior of more than 193,000 politically active Twitter users during eight big events from the 2012 presidential race — national conventions and presidential debates and the like — and compared it to their baseline activity.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the paper, and it’s worth a read for anyone hoping to learn more about how social media reflect and shape our political discussion, but one of the most important parts comes in the researchers’ analysis of what happens during massive-audience events like debates:
Despite the potential for social media to create larger public squares with more diverse voices speaking, occasions for large-scale shared attention such as media events appear to undermine this deliberative potential by replacing existing interpersonal social dynamics with increased collective attention to existing “stars”. The particular socio-technical mechanisms that drive the behavioral changes we have identified remain unclear … the uncertainty of live events may predispose users to seek information from authorities and their expert sensemaking processes rather than from their peers.
It’s striking to look at some of the authors of the most re-tweeted tweets from the debates: Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Sean Hannity, and Dick Morris. These are not, suffice it to say, fresh new voices that have been elevated and ignited by Twitter; they’re the same folks who have been churning out political commentary and/or humor since the ‘80s and ‘90s. That tells you something.