OPINION:THESE PAGES have recently featured a number of pieces criticising the users of Twitter.
For the uninitiated, Twitter is a website where “tweeters” (anonymous or otherwise) can post short messages, which those who “follow” them will see on their screen.
It may sound a little pointless to those who do not use Twitter, but for many it is a useful “place” in which to share articles and websites of interest, discuss issues, comment on a contemporaneous radio or TV show and get reaction from others. It is also an important location for building momentum around social and political campaigns such as the current “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
Of course there are those who use Twitter for nasty, vindictive or asinine purposes. These can be filtered out. Users who cross the line into abuse, harassment, impersonation or criminal activity can be reported. Although Twitter has no conventional editor deciding what makes the cut, the site is not entirely unregulated. Users regulate one another by fact-checking, challenging, reporting, discussing, (dis)agreeing and so on. Usually this works.
Anyone who uses the site knows this, and sees that – away from the celebrities and trite tweets about people’s breakfast – there are knowledge exchanges, political discussions, debates and engagements going on. It is a veritable salon for the 21st century. What critics of Twitter – who caricature it as some kind of graffiti or a playground for cranks – fail to appreciate is that Twitter (like other social media) has a significant regulatory capacity.
Gone are the days when newspapers and news editors on TV and radio decided on what constitutes news, or when a columnist or journalist is challenged only through an editor’s letter bag or solicitors’ letters, or when a politician could make an unsubstantiated claim or remark and get away with it.
Now, people – readers, voters, news consumers, interested individuals – can and do challenge the orthodoxy we are presented with, and this challenge cannot be ignored. This is important – it is a transformative opportunity that we ought to embrace.
If it is taken seriously, the regulatory capacity of those who use Twitter (who are, after all, interested enough in the world to read the papers and watch the news and discuss it) can improve the quality of our public discourse. It may even improve the quality of what is produced by traditional news outlets. It is not something to be afraid of.
Twitter can also complement traditional forms of media and news coverage with a more diverse and expert pool of commentators. Rather than the same voices commenting on everything, whether they happen to know about an issue or not, Twitter allows expertise to flourish.
Again, beyond the caricature of Twitter is the reality that many experts, especially academics, embrace it and provide informed counterpoints to the sometimes underinformed (and, admittedly rarely, simply wrong) analysis that can appear in newspapers and on TV and radio shows.
Unlike many of the full-time commentators in the Irish public sphere, this kind of “tweeter”– I am such a one myself – spends time engaging with readers, answering questions or criticisms and outlining views in more detail when that is (fairly) requested.
We also tend to deal effectively with people who are “trolling”, or abusively engaging, with us. If you put your views into the public domain, you must be willing, it seems to me, to defend them. For those of us who are academics, being challenged and challenging in return is our bread and butter; it is what we do and how we try to contribute to public discourse.
Furthermore, a person’s age, gender, race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, disability, membership of any community and so on cannot prevent one having a say on Twitter. It is an equal opportunities forum; if you have an internet connection, you can take part. The same cannot fairly be said for conventional media outlets, which tend to rely on a small pool of regular commentators in a way that can (intentionally or otherwise) filter out oppositional or counter-cultural viewpoints.
If we step away from an instinctive criticism of that which is new, alien and challenging, it should become clear that Twitter has a significant potential that ought to be embraced. Engaging with it – and its users – can make our public discourse, including our traditional media outlets, more accountable, more diverse, and more expertise-driven. In short, it can make it better. The challenge for traditional media is to grasp that opportunity.
Dr Fiona de Londras lectures in law at UCD, blogs at humanrights.ieand tweets @efdel