The people who discuss Australian politics on Twitter seem to pride themselves on their antipodean egalitarianism.
While you’d like to think this means a fair go for all, it’s more likely to be the justification for bringing anyone with an ounce of hubris down a peg or two. The more self-centred the target, the more likely they will be mocked and the greater the tendency for Twitter’s pack behaviour to take hold.
Unsurprisingly, left-wing online activism group GetUp! gets its fair share of Twitter ridicule. GetUp’s propensity to claim sole credit for any achievement on their various campaigns has led people to jokingly tweet “thanks GetUp!” for decidedly unrelated achievements such as the bus being on time or their coffee being hot.
Introspection is not one of Twitter’s strong points, skipping as it does continually between innumerable snippets of online immediacy. So it’s not surprising that Twitter’s growing resemblance to GetUp!, including its tendency to default to outrage and its inflated sense of self-importance, may not have occurred to many of those who gather there.
Like GetUp!, Twitter’s activism is based on raising the level of outrage while lowering the threshold of engagement. This minimal-effort model, requiring only the click of a “like” button or the addition of a twibbon, achieves little more than giving the supporter a warm inner glow.
Yet GetUp! proclaim the number of people who’ve signed their petitions as an indication of their influence. Similarly, some Twitter campaigners have begun to point to the number of their followers or retweets as being representative of theirs. Neither metric is a credible indication of what action, if any, a person would be prepared to take in real life to support a particular cause.
Nevertheless, Twitter is now being credited for being the principal player in a number of recent campaigns. Apparently it has not only been instrumental in locating missing individuals and mainstreaming the debate on sexism, but most recently saving a whistleblower from being publicly discredited.
But what is really achieved by people rallying for causes on Twitter? At best, new communities of interest are created and communication channels established to share information. At worst, Twitter serves as little more than a cheer squad, noisily drawing attention to the scoreboard while having minimal impact on the outcome.
And this is the nub of the issue when it comes to online campaigning. There’s a yawning disconnect between what people say they will do in support of a cause and what they actually do. Twitter has the potential to bridge that divide, but it has rarely done so.
What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.
What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones’ chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.
Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation. The speed with which relevant information was shared across Twitter helped to counter his detractors’ campaign of disinformation and spin.
But Twitter’s protection of Fox does not herald the creation of a new safe haven for whistleblowers more generally. One’s cause must align with Twitter’s in order to qualify for such protection. Neither James Ashby nor Kathy Jackson, for example, were offered similar levels of protection by the Twitter collective, undoubtedly because their allegations were politically partisan in nature.
Twitter’s burgeoning reputation for making a difference falls well short of reality.
Like GetUp!, its ability to affect real change is four-fifths self-promotion and one-fifth wishful thinking. Like GetUp!, it can attract eyeballs and generate headlines by anointing preferred causes and initiating outrage. But also like GetUp!, Twitter has shown little ability to turn digital chatter into real action.
Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that’s when we’ll be able to tweet “Thanks Twitter!” without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.
This post originally appeared at ABC’s online opinion site, The Drum.