Twitter becomes the unlikely school of politics


Let’s face it: Australian politics is in a bad state. Politicians spew spin-doctored soundbites, journalists hyperbolise truth into click-fodder, and television talking heads blare contrarian rhetoric at each other’s unlistening faces.

Meanwhile, the community’s political conversation is equally impoverished: reduced in most cases to debating the appearance, flaws and proclivities of our national leaders.

It’s difficult to say whether Australians’ superficial interest in politics prompted the tabloidisation of our democratic processes, or whether the opposite occurred. Accusations of blame are regularly flung in both directions.

Regardless, the public’s general lack of political knowledge is also a factor. It can be pretty daunting to launch into a political discussion without some understanding of how our bicameral parliamentary system works, how policies are developed, what political philosophies underpin our party system, and what constitutes smart politics, sound policy or a great yarn.

In the absence of this awareness, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama or distraction of the day – be it the Prime Minster’s new glasses, the Opposition’s latest dummy spit in Question Time, or an incremental move in one of the myriad opinion polls.

But there’s a change brewing. People are asking, learning and talking about politics in a manner that’s somewhat unexpected.

Twitter has been known to offer up a range of salutary experiences to anyone brave enough to venture an opinion on politics, but not many of those experiences would be considered particularly positive or enjoyable. Twitter was created long after trolls, shills and sock-puppets came into existence, but these beasts have thrived there and it’s become their natural hunting ground.

Up until recently, it was rare for respectful and open-minded political discussion to take place on Twitter. Regardless of one’s views, there always seemed to be a political staffer or other vested interest lurking nearby ready to delegitimise any contrary views and demonise those who hold them. It was the antithesis of democracy in action, with political interests actively seeking to close down and destroy any dissenting opinions.

And yet… there’s a growing number of brave souls venturing out into the Twitter plains. They’re asking the most basic of questions, because they’re seeking the most basic of answers. In the absence of a civic education and with the news media focused only on hyperdrama, these voters are turning to social media to learn the fundamentals. They want to know things like: why can’t a Senate election be held before August 3; what is caretaker mode and when does it start; why/how are the voting systems difference for the House of Representatives and the Senate; how can Barnaby Joyce run for a seat in NSW when he’s a Senator in Queensland; will a successful no confidence motion cause an early election; what’s a margin of error and why is it important in opinion polls; and why do politicians only care what the voters in their electorates think? And so on.

Twelve months ago, newbie questions like this would have been ignored or met with derision. As I said, Twitter is not a place for the faint-hearted. But now, many such questions receive meaningful responses and can lead to broad and rich political discussions.

Quite often, the ones providing the answers are political bloggers. The willingness of bloggers to engage with their readers, answer questions, discuss criticisms and consider other perspectives distinguishes them from the vast majority of journalists and commentators in the traditional media.

Thankfully, there are at least some journalists who’ve quickly and adeptly grasped that there’s a growing number of political readers who seek a genuine connection with their writers. And those readers will go where the interactivity takes them.

It’s still early days, but the one good thing the Twitter echo-chamber could do this election year is be a conduit between those who want to know more about Australian politics and those who are willing to explain and discuss it. One way or another, either through traditional or social media, blogs or simple discussion, more Australians are going to learn how their democracy works.

Educated voters are more discerning and they’ll be more demanding. They’ll want better behaviour from their politicians, better policies from the parties, and better reportage from the media.

This could make for very interesting civil discourse over the next few years.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

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