Sound and fury: can Twitter really change the world?

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.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

5 thoughts on “Sound and fury: can Twitter really change the world?”

  1. communication is key it starts with a thought then it is spoken reasons why freedom of speech is so important twitter will undoubtedly speed up human evolution people who block freedom of speech and opinion in any way will only slow down human evolution to their speed which is highly selfish

  2. Can Twitter change the world? This world is one of flux, and it changes minute by minute according to what happens and what influences that change. It never remains static.

    Twitter is part of that. Sometimes it makes a big impact, though it seems often rather fleeting; at others, practically none. But tiny impacts add up, and together they may make a more significant change in the long term that one seemingly massive Twitter storm in a teacup.

    Twitter itself is both growing and changing, and manipulable. Increasingly it’s being used as an agent for both freedom and propaganda. It remains to be seen how the balance tips.

  3. Q. Can Twitter really change the world?
    A. It already has. Speakers corner is in most house-holds and,
    we all can have a soap-box. Not just Lobbyists, Politicians and the embedded media. All of whom have stalked the citizens to Twitter and begged us to follow them.

  4. Q. What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women?

    A. You do realize Twitter is a yank out-fit D.?
    When ACK-MA, Mac-Radio and Alan Jones can`t repair Alan`s ego, it doesn`t by default, make it Twitters problem.

    I think you expect too much from Twitter D,
    it is just a technology platform, like the telephone, with a bunch of citizens attached. You seem to expect it to have answers.

    But how can you expect Twitter to solve life`s problems.?
    When we look at Politicians, people whose job IS to solve the Nations problems, and we get *derp from them.

    EG, Right to die Laws. 80-90% of population want them.
    Politicians can`t get past Very Loud Minority.

  5. Thanks, a sensible article. Twitter on occasion shares a lot with lynch-mobs of old. When mass communication makes crowd communication immediate it can form a mob with it’s own personality and a very, very low IQ. A mob being upset at something often does not make it effective or smart. The Jill Meagher protests bordered on delusional for fostering the idea that women should be able to get drunk and safely walk the streets late at night among criminals (and let’s not even get started on the fact that men can’t walk safely in the same circumstances and get assaulted and killed doing so, it’s just they aren’t as pretty and innocent-looking as Jill was). Similarly the mob that hounded the Abel Tasman from the sea without looking at all at the evidence, just the nice warm collective feeling that it’s big so it must be bad.

    Of course, the campaigns I agree with are only sensible, the ones I disagree with are just rabid mobs. Somewhere in there is some truth, even though it is sometimes hard to find.

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