The Role of Twitter in Our Political Discourse

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Twitter is everywhere these days, so it’s no surprise that even our beloved elected officials use it. It is such a common part of their business nowadays that Twitter has sent a representative to the capitol to better serve those congressmen who use the blue bird. The novelty of old, technologically naive politicians entering the social networking world has not worn off quite yet, but one of these days Congress using Twitter will be as unremarkable as e-mail. When it comes to making political statements or campaigning, however, Twitter is still a powerful attention-grabbing tool and will be an important aspect of electoral strategy, not only in the next election but well into the future.

Anyone familiar with Sarah Palin’s constant tweets knows the power Twitter has in shaping political discourse. Twitter is one of the best ways for politicians to connect to their constituents and, more importantly, to loyal followers who could be a big help in a potential run for office. The candidates who master social networking technology are not only the politicians of the future, but the ones who will more likely capture and motivate the youngest voters in the country.

As more and more people become linked and mobilized through the use of applications like Twitter, everything from fundraiser events to political rallies will depend on instantaneous and continual updates to function effectively. This will get new people involved in a process that has become trite over the years and could finally generate enthusiasm for politics again. Signs of this future were very present in the 2008 election and will continue to be the norm for years to come.

Twitter is also invaluable as a media lightning rod. A short viral blast from an influential figure like Palin can stir up debate for several days while commentators on both sides challenge its merits. No matter how childish or grammatically unsound the tweet, it will be elevated to the same status as an official public statement or major interview. After Obama’s State of the Union address, a few Republicans caused a stir with tweets they sent out while the president was speaking. Had they shared their opinions after the speech, they would not have been nearly as important or drawn as much attention. With Twitter, you don’t even have to wait for your political opponent to stop talking before you denounce what he has to say or begin a fresh round of mudslinging.

It is a good sign that politicians wish to adapt to the information age, but they barely pass muster as statesmen as it is. There are consequences when engaging in political discourse is as simple as tweeting.

Twitter only serves to trivialize their jobs further, as if they were any other person off the street with a hastily posted comment or opinion on something unimportant. Well-thought approaches to the problems we face and informed opinions are valuable in any context – Twitter is simply not a platform that can allow them to thrive. Twitter is a good way for legislators to update their constituents on the latest business in the capitol or to offer short words of wisdom or encouragement, but it definitely fails to be an adequate forum for serious public discussion. Anything worth saying in 250 words or less is worth a little more time and effort to say properly.

Whether they like it or not and whether it is ultimately a good thing for them to make such regular use of Twitter, politicians don’t have much of a choice – they must get with the times. In this modern age of increasingly instantaneous communication, they need to use the same digital media millions of Americans do in order to get their message across. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will pay attention or care about them. After all, even with new technology and rapid communication through social networking, voters are as apathetic as ever. The younger voters may be motivated in a way that they haven’t been in decades, but the more common it becomes, the easier it will be for voters to get bored. After all, politics is politics, whether a 20-minute speech or a series of tweets.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.

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