In the four years since the 2016 US Presidential Election, Twitter has become one of the premier spaces on the Internet for political news, controversies, and debates. Conversely, Twitter has evolved dramatically from the personal micro-blogging site it once was at its inception. With Jürgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere in mind, scholars have considered the platform’s classification as a digital public sphere in the last decade. Habermas’ public sphere was based on the premise that public opinion could be formed in a space where all citizens have access (Fuchs, 2014). Furthermore, social status would be deemed irrelevant and only the quality of argument would be considered (Liu and Weber, 2014). In Habermas’s mind, these principles would result in a democratic space.
Scholars like Christian Fuchs (2014) and Liu and Weber (2014) have argued that Twitter cannot fully qualify as a public sphere due primarily to limitations of social status and equal access. Liu and Weber (2014) argue that those at the bottom end of the social hierarchy are mostly ignored, while Fuchs (2014) classifies Twitter instead as a pseudo-public sphere where most content is information-based rather than being conversational. Since 2014, however, Twitter has changed drastically and has become a hub for political discussion for anyone who wishes to partake. With greater focus on replies and quote tweets, as well as an increased character-count from 140 to 280, two-way conversations are more suited to Twitter today than ever before. Still, there remain a variety of issues that contribute to Twitter’s questionable status as a public sphere and democratic space.
This essay will explore how Twitter provides a pseudo-democratic space for dialogue about social and political issues in society, citing examples of hashtag-based movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. However, it will also present issues related to inequal enforcement of rules and violations, as well as underrepresentation and algorithm-driven filter bubbles that contribute to Twitter’s failing in providing a truly democratic space.
Recent statistics find that Twitter has approximately 330 million users worldwide, the majority of which (47 million) are in the United States (Lin, 2020). Both numbers are small in comparison with real-world populations, but they still provide large enough foundations to create massive conversations. As university professor Sarah Jackson (2019) argues, our world is better off as a result of sociopolitical conversations that have been born on Twitter. Specifically, she contends that people who have previously been left out of public discussions––such as young and marginalized populations––are finally able to have their voices heard through the platform. In an interview with Vox, she highlights this point specifically, claiming that new voices and perspectives being heard on Twitter have “made us better and more democratic” (Illing, 2019, para. 13). While she concedes that those with greater power and resources are still able to stifle dissenters on Twitter, she maintains that the “dissenting discourse” is still having an impact “worth celebrating” (Illing, 2019, para. 23).
In addition to holding those in power accountable for their words and actions, Twitter also provides a space for marginalized communities to create movements that extend beyond the Internet. For example, movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo “were pushed into mainstream consciousness by networks of ordinary people” sharing their own stories and making collective demands (Jackson, 2019, para. 5). This has given people a sense of empowerment that was once impossible to unleash during a time when traditional media gatekeepers in print and broadcast journalism decided the topics available for public discussion. Still, despite its tremendous affordances, Twitter is not without its flaws.
Although it might seem like a wide array of people are engaging in political discussions through the medium, those who are visible on the platform tend to be highly overrepresented. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, approximately 10 percent of Twitter users in the United States accounted for 97 percent of tweets concerning American politics (Baca, 2019). Moreover, Baca states that “the most prolific political tweeters accounted for 6 percent of all U.S. adult Twitter users and 73 percent of all political tweets” (2019, para. 2). While Sarah Jackson talked about Twitter’s ability to give voices to those who had previously been stifled, the social platform is still not providing a space where all voices are being heard equally. With this in mind, it is likely that scholars would continue to dismiss the platform as a type of public sphere.
Similar to how Fuchs (2014) labelled Twitter as a pseudo-public sphere, it would be appropriate to call it a pseudo-democratic space. Technically anyone can speak up and voice their opinion, but there is no guarantee that it will be seen, reviewed, or challenged by any other users. If one chooses to do so, they can even mute certain words or block users from coming up in their Twitter feeds. If anyone has the power to stifle others’ voices and opinions, it is difficult to contend that Twitter is truly democratic. In addition to actions such as muting and blocking, Twitter also tends to follow the social media trend of “filter bubbles,” where users become locked into a certain social circle and only see information that reinforces their existing beliefs. As Baca (2019) notes, such filter bubbles can be intensified by invisible algorithms that are difficult to understand but incredibly influential.
Another area where Twitter struggles in providing a democratic space is through its rules and regulations, which some users believe favour certain individuals. For example, when Donald Trump announced via Twitter earlier this month that he and the First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19, many users took to the site to wish for his death. Twitter decided that wishing death or harm against the president was not acceptable and all posts that expressed such content would be removed (Thorbecke, 2020). This might seem like a reasonable action for a social platform to take in the wake of an event like this, but the decision did not sit well with many users who accused the platform of a double standard. In all fairness to those users, they have a valid point.
One Twitter user who goes by the screen name @willw posted a tweet in response to Twitter Communications with screenshot evidence of a ruling 12 hours prior that seemed to contradict their statement. In one screenshot is a reported Tweet from another user who said “@willw Hope u die” (Wilkinson, 2020). The second screenshot then shows Twitter’s decision on the Tweet, which explains “we didn’t find a violation of our rules in the content you reported” (Wilkinson, 2020). There are numerous other examples of users who had their reports of threats or ill wishes dismissed by Twitter. In response, Twitter acknowledged the claims that they were “enforcing some policies inconsistently,” stating that they “must do better” (Thorbecke, 2020). Until better arrives, however, it cannot be said that Twitter is a completely democratic space.
The platform has many excellent affordances, such as its ability to host public discussions and connect like-minded people from around the world, leading to unprecedented social and political movements. However, some voices are still favoured more than others in very disproportionate ways, and the extreme levels of like-mindedness through filter bubbles only inhibit democracy. For all its positive qualities, it is fair to call Twitter a pseudo-democratic space. However, the issues presented in this paper have highlighted that there remains work to be done to transform Twitter into a true democratic space that is free from inequality and stifling control.
Baca, M.C. (2019, October 24). Most of the political tweets you see are from a minority of users, a Pew study says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/10/24/most-political-tweets-you-see-are-small-minority-users/
Fuchs, C. (2014) Twitter and democracy: A new public sphere? In Social media: A critical introduction (pp. 52-68). London: Sage. Retrieved from https://canvas.sfu.ca/courses/47415
Illing, S. (2020, January 14). In defense of Twitter: A scholar makes the case for the platform’s democratic potential. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/14/21056597/twitter-social-media-democracy
Jackson, S.J. (2019, December 27). Twitter made us better. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/27/opinion/sunday/twitter-social-media.html
Lin, Y. (2020, May 30). 10 Twitter statistics every marketer should know in 2020. Oberlo. Retrieved from https://www.oberlo.ca/blog/twitter-statistics#:~:text=Summary%3A%20Twitter%20Statistics,-Here’s%20a%20summary&text=There%20are%20330%20million%20monthly,female%20and%2066%20percent%20male
Liu, Z., & Weber, I. (2014). Is Twitter a public sphere for online conflicts? A cross-ideological and cross-hierarchical look. In International Conference on Social Informatics (pp. 336-347). Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-13734-6_25
Thorbecke, C. (2020, October 6). Twitter accused of double standard with Trump death wish posts. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Business/twitter-accused-double-standard-trump-death-posts/story?id=73450089
Wilkinson, W. [willw]. (2020, October 2). This was your ruling 12 hours ago lol [Image] [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/willw/status/1312182870551617538