Categories
General

Why political discussions on Twitter don’t work

Twitter and social media are everywhere. It also seems that political discussions are mainly driven by Twitter and other platforms. Let’s just have a look who is on Twitter in Germany: Only 8% of Germans do have an account on Twitter. Probably this population is even screwed to people who are young, do have higher education and/or work on media jobs. In the US this looks different, there are close to 50 million active users, so one in every six Americans uses Twitter.

But still, it is now possible to talk directly to your politicians and tell them what YOU think and what is important. This means that politics comes down to the “ordinary people”. Well, after looking at who is on Twitter, it is evident that this is (at least for Germany) not true. Furthermore, I think that some (especially complex) discussions are better not done online in general. There are many reasons for this, I think three are most relevant:

  • Audience
  • Trolling
  • Attention

Audience

Everyone working in sales or marketing knows: defining a target audience is really hard: Who do you want to sell your product to? How should use your software? These questions are not easy. If you are on an open social network, this gets even harder. You do not know if your political views about migration are read by white supremacists or Antifa people. Which brings us to the issue that there is constant misunderstanding. This is sometimes intended, but maybe often not. With a joke you might be in some friendship circles a funny guy, in other a nazi, or you might be considered left-wing by some people, but think your opinion is quite moderate or even conservative. A nice piece about this is this article about PewDiePie who became a symbol of white supremacists. Although you probably have to admit that PewDiePie himself does not really know what he believes.

Trolling

Trolling is also a great problem. People troll because they want to annoy people, maybe just for fund and yes, some might even get paid to do it. I personally respect trolling as a social mechanism that can be very well played. See for this this great presentation. The issue is also not new, you had trolls since the internet started. What is the problem now? When I first used the internet, it was mainly forums where discussion happened. When you were annoyed of the trolls, you could ban them, some forums also created places where trolls could do their trolling without annoying other people. Another rule was not to feed them. Just ignoring helped quite well. What is different now? On Social Media, you cannot just open hashtags or sub-forums where the trolls can live. They still stay in your newsfeed. Yes, you can block them manually, but this is also very time-consuming. Second, trolls get fed no matter what. This old machinery of not-feeding seems to scale very bad. The trolls always find someone who is obsessed with their trolling and so they win. Sadly, the mechanisms of attendance play very well for trolls, too:

Attendance

We all know Twitter and other services sell our attendance to their ad-buyers. (Just read the book The attention merchants by Tim Wu, if you are more interested) Based on this, it is important for these platforms that we spend more time there in order to make more money. So there is an incentive for them to keep us as long as possible on the platform and probably also show opinions that are more controversial, maybe polemic, but probably not focused on a good discussion. If we look at this from the other side, it also gets clear what you have to do if you want to have a lot of followers: produce content that the services rank high and show it often to people. There you are, you produce polemic, polarizing content in order to get ranked higher by Twitter and reach a higher audience.

Summing up, we see why so few people I know in personal do political stuff on twitter. I personally enjoy the discussions about information science, user experience or data science on Twitter a lot, but this is mainly because the audience is clear and there are close to none trolls. Therefore Twitter is for me a great professional tool, but not a digital place to have political discussions. It might make sense also for the media to not see is as this.

Leave a Reply