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More on Twittering

- June 16, 2009

I tend to agree with Henry’s skeptical post. True, Andrew Sullivan is right in his response:

bq. But in disseminating information, it has been critical.

But let’s take a wider view. If the question is simply, “Amidst an international crisis, can you learn things on Twitter (or blogs) that you can’t learn in the MSM?”, the answer will always be “Yes.” But if the question is: “How much of what is on Twitter in such circumstances is truly reliable and useful?”, then the answer is less clear. The same is true if the question is: “How can we knit together the fragmented reports available on Twitter to summarize what is going on?” Suddenly, the MSM becomes more useful.

If the topic is “disseminating information,” then Twitter can basically produce one of three outcomes:

1) “Good” information. The key element of “good” is truthful, it seems to me.
2) “Bad” information. This will be inaccurate or misleading.
3) Irrelevant information.

Most of Twitter is #3, in the sense that it’s not concerned with political news. That’s fine. If 2 million people want to “follow” Ashton Kutcher, I can’t stop them.

The bigger question is whether and how we can verify that politically relevant information is accurate. My take on Twitter-philia is that it selects on #1 and ignores #2.

The same is true with accounts of Twitter and political action (e.g, the Orange revolution), which was the focus on Henry’s post. A similar tripartite scheme holds. Technologies like Twitter may help, hurt, or be irrelevant. But we mostly hear about their apparent helpfulness. And the evidence even in those cases isn’t ironclad. Here is the conclusion from a Berkman Center case study of the Ukraine:

bq. This working paper is part of a series examining how the Internet influences democracy. This report is a narrative case study that examines the role of the Internet and mobile phones during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The first section describes the online citizen journalists who reported many stories left untouched by self censored mainstream journalists. The second section investigates the use of digital networked technologies by pro-democracy organizers. This case study concludes with the statement that the Internet and mobile phones made a wide range of activities easier, however the Orange Revolution was largely made possible by savvy activists and journalists willing to take risks to improve their country.

I don’t take this case study as definitive proof, but surely it’s right to note that any technology is only one part of the story, and not necessarily the most important part.

And there is one other point, which Henry alludes to. What about those cases where the technology is successful, but successful in promoting something bad? The Berkman Center’s case study of Kenya concludes:

bq. Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound. Using the lens of the 2007-2008 Kenyan Presidential Election Crisis, this case study illustrates how digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to civic behaviors such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns. The paper concludes with the notion that while digital tools can help promote transparency and keep perpetrators from facing impunity, they can also increase the ease of promoting hate speech and ethnic divisions.

Again, there is no definitive proof here, but the mere possibility is worth keeping in mind.

Sixteen years ago, Larry Bartels wrote:

bq. The state of research on media effects is one of the most notable embarrassments of modern social science. The pervasiveness of the mass media and their virtual monopoly over the presentation of many kinds of information must suggest to reasonable observers that what these media say and how they say it has enormous social and political consequences. Nevertheless, the scholarly literature has been much better at refuting, qualifying, and circumscribing the thesis of media impact than at supporting it.

I can’t see that research into “new media” is any different, at least at this early stage.