When right-television businessman and personality Donald Trump took office in 2016, he became the first American president to actively and intentionally retain a personal Twitter account while in office. And he used his platform prolifically, tweeting so often and so regularly throughout his time in the White House that he ultimately forced a U.S. National Archives spokesperson into confirming his 280-character messages as legitimate presidential records.
While Twitter has since decided to enact a permanent ban of Trump’s account (provoking the former president’s creation of a new social media platform, Truth Social), the saga undeniably marks a new era of digital political culture. Especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, locked away alone with our phones, social media platforms like Twitter present a new avenue for unprecedented virtual interaction.
But as we let ourselves slide deeper into the Twittersphere, it’s important that we force ourselves to remain consciously aware of the digital environment we choose to inhabit. Or, alternately: Twitter is not the world, and it’s critical we remember that, especially in conducting our political behavior.
Under 25 percent of American adults are actually on Twitter, per the Pew Research Center, and those users trend better-educated, wealthier, and younger than our national population. It’s also a much more liberal percentage of our country than is truly representative.
It gets worse. Within that base 22 percent of American adults on Twitter, 80 percent of all tweets come from just 10 percent of users – the median account holder only posts from their own account twice every month. And another significant portion of this larger, 22 percent demographic also keeps its accounts private, meaning you won’t see their content unless you follow them.
Additionally, some 66 percent of all links on Twitter (from the entire user universe, not just American account holders) come from profiles that are almost definitely automated bots. Obviously, this isn’t ideal, and while relatively untested is most likely harmful to our democracy.
I want to be clear: I’m not telling you to get off Twitter. It can be a hugely productive channel for deliberation, and it’s a decidedly expeditious way to reach decision- and policymakers (many of whom use the platform in a professional capacity). But it’s also important to remain cautious of the unconscious assumption that everything that happens on Twitter is meaningful in some way.
Finally, let’s briefly talk about Twitter’s unfortunate capacity to routinely flatten nuanced conversations into black-and-white, this-or-that dichotomies. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the ‘Golden Rule’ – which tells us to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves – but there’s a parallel piece of advice that I’d like to share: read people charitably. If we want to be given the benefit of the doubt in conversations, we need to extend that generosity to those we engage with as well; or, flipped, how can we expect anyone to have faith in our good intentions if we refuse to believe the same of them? Every single American – every single person – is shaped by their cultural values and lived experiences, and despite the impersonal nature of an exchange on social media, we all act relatively rationally. Of course, you are under no obligation whatsoever to continue debating or talking with anyone who is clearly and obviously operating in bad faith themselves – there’s absolutely no need to subject yourself to continued hostility from someone unwilling to listen – but we should try to operate on the same principles that our country is founded on: innocent until proven guilty.
If you spend a lot of time on Twitter (like I do), this blog post is your quick reminder not to filter your ideology, general worldview, or understanding of current events exclusively through social media. Because context is king, and in this case, it makes a huge difference in how we can and should engage with each other online.
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