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The tweet heard around the world
A young blonde woman sits in a New York airport, waiting to board her flight to Cape Town. While mindlessly scrolling through her phone with all the other anxious travelers, this PR consultant decides to send out an amusing Tweet for her 170 followers. “Going to Africa,” she writes. “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” As soon as she finishes her attempt at witty commentary on white privilege, Justine Sacco finally boards her plane. During the 11-hour flight, her tweet infuriated tens of thousands of people. They responded by calling her ignorant and racist, and they made #HasJustineLandedYet a worldwide trending topic. She lost her job and her reputation, and this public shaming traumatized her.
Since its inception in 2006, Twitter has greatly affected political and social change in American culture. People have freedom to spread and collect uncensored information at will, and this has changed the face of communication. In more specific terms, Twitter has intense implications on politics, society, and culture. With Sacco, it nearly ruined her life. Indeed, Twitter seems to do more harm than good. Twitter’s negative effects on society and culture have severely impacted America’s political climate.
Twitter in culture
Twitter’s impact on culture is undeniable. The social media giant has provided an anonymous platform for people to use freely, often in ways that are not healthy. Meanwhile, it feeds people’s desire to be known beyond their social spheres. This heightened connectivity allows for the rapid spreading of ideas through memes and hashtags.
Andrew Keen, a British-American author and entrepreneur, writes in his book The Cult of the Amateur that social media allows people to circumvent the expert-based filtering process known as gatekeepers. Subsequently, this allows the Internet to promote social harms such as gambling, pornography, and “social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.” He believes that “cultural standards and moral values are at stake” due to new media.
“Cultural standards and moral values are at stake.”Keen
These standards are indeed being slashed on Twitter. Op-Ed contributor for the New York Times Brett Stephenswrites that technology services cultural needs and teaches cultural desires. Twitter specifically is about whatever “pops out” and is often “altogether too revealing.” He explains that bigotry flourishes on Twitter, largely thanks to user anonymity and the allowance of instantaneous, uncensored self-publication. Furthermore, Twitter “amplifies ugliness, erases nuance, and coarsens thought.” Original meanings of tweets become more diluted with each subsequent retweet, where he believes the message can be warped by new commentary. Interestingly, Stephens equates Twitter to a cesspool of “self-righteous digital bullying” and “mob-like behavior” that “pleasurable bears witness to the mockery or humiliation of others.”
This attitude was confirmed on a milder scale when psychologists Robert Miller and James Melton conducted a study in which they found that college students were considerably uncomfortable with authority figures viewing their Twitter accounts, even though these accounts were often left public, making them more accessible to viewers. They concluded that students either feel safer on Twitter than on Facebook or they imagine that the two platforms offer different audiences and share accordingly. At any rate, college students in this study were far more likely to use Twitter to post about behavior deemed unacceptable by employers or other authority figures.
It should not be surprising that college students use Twitter this way because Twitter is often associated with boosting popularity. Joseph Faina, a professor at Los Angeles Valley College, wrote an essay entitled “Twitter and the New Publicity.” Here, he connects the idea of celebrity to an “insatiable cultural desire for public recognition” that can be tasted through new innovations in media and technology. Twitter offers an instant publicity, and its exponential growth encourages users to reach wider and more diverse audiences.
This boost in popularity directly correlates to heightened connectivity. Dr. Alex Leavitt, a computational social scientist, wrote a review on the cultural salience of Twitter memes. He explains how meme frequency and visibility led to a meme’s “spreadability.” Dr. Leavitt writes that memes and hashtags require participation for them to become trending topics. This accounts for the success of hashtags like #kony2012, #occupywallstreet, #bindersfullofwomen, and more recently, movements like #metoo and #timesup. These specific hashtags now represent cultures affecting social change, changes achieved through the rapid spread of ideas.
Twitter in society
Twitter’s marks on culture spread throughout society, leaving deeper wounds. These wounds have damaged the people’s ability to determine truth, subsequently harming their faith in social media. Furthermore, Twitter is affecting the socioeconomic landscape in unexpected and harmful ways.
Jeff Sonderman, the deputy director of the American Press Institute, wrote an article asserting that retweets’ credibility correlate to the person who retweeted them, not necessarily their original source. Because of this, participants struggle to determine if a tweet is true or not. Usually, Twitter users only spend 3 seconds reading and analyzing a tweet, giving them extremely minimal “processing” time. In other words, consumers often automatically trust a retweet from a friend without considering where it first came from. In Joseph Faina’s “Twitter and the New Publicity,” he also argues that the gratification people feel from their Twitter followers makes them feel like celebrities. Put simply, Twitter creates a “hyper-public media environment” that blurs the line between the public and private spheres of life, as well as the online and offline spheres.
These blurred lines have made it difficult for people to trust the social medium. Telegraph News reported on a recent study that found public trust in Twitter had fallen to a new low. According to the Edelman trust barometer, of 33,000 surveyed people, 63% of users believe that companies like Twitter “lack transparency.” 62% believe that Twitter is selling people’s data without their knowledge, and 34% do not think that social media in general is a force for good. Indeed, people seem to be subconsciously aware of Twitter’s affects on the socioeconomic landscape.
In The Cult of the Amateur, Keen calls social media “parasites” that “create no content of [their] own.” He also refers to changes such as downsizing of newspaper business and the closing of record labels as forms of economic loss caused by internet-based social changes. “What is free,” he asserts, “is actually costing us a fortune.” He strongly feels that the Internet culture threatens copyright laws, authorship, and intellectual property because advertising dollars are migrating from print and television to the Web.
“What is free is actually costing us a fortune.”Keen
Most daringly, Keen declares that historically speaking, mass participation in ideas does not improve quality. For example, popular opinion supported social tragedies like slavery, infanticide, Bush’s war on Iraq, and several others. He is afraid that due to social media, the future is “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”
Twitter in politics
Culture and society have seen disparaging changes due to the influence of Twitter. These changes are apparent in all aspects of life, including in American politics. Twitter plays a special role in America’s political landscape, often being used by politicians and the like to influence elections.
In 2013, two Political Science professors teamed up to write Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. Jason Gainous and Kevin Wagner analyzed trends in tweets from Congress during the 2010 campaign, determining how Twitter was used to influence the elections. They found that as Twitter’s usage grows exponentially, it changes the country’s political calculus because it shifts who controls the output of information. Put simply, politicians can shape and dictate their own content, giving them more power over their image. Gainous and Wagner also believe that people problematically avoid cognitive dissonance on Twitter by “connecting with the like-minded” and exclusively following accounts that strengthen their opinions. Furthermore, Twitter provides a “direct conduit to the consumer,” reinforcing the idea that Twitter allows users to circumvent gatekeepers.
Common tweets they found from politicians were campaign announcements, attacks on opponents, tweets promoting positive personal characteristics, and blurbs about policy-related issues. Almost every tweet was designed to influence voters. They found that even misinformation was used for political gain. Members of Congress frequently generated “digital relationships” with their followers for social capital.
Brett Stephens’ article “How Twitter Pornified Politics” similarly points out how Trump uses Twitter to “pretend” to mingle with his followers while increasing his distance from them. In his opinion, Twitter projects politics in a distorted way, much like pornography. He argues that its debasing, bad for the soul, and bad for the country. Unfortunately, Stephens neglected a far more threatening presence in the Twittersphere that recently threw its hand in American politics.
In the 2016 elections, Russia used Twitter to influence American voters. Scott Shane, a reporter for the New York Times, discusses the Russian government’s strategy to use fake Americans to fuel the anger in this already polarizing elections. Russia created thousands of Twitter bots to fire off messages against Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Shane describes how these messages often appeared seconds apart, launching in alphabetical order of the bots’ made-up names. These bots promoted DCLeaks, a website also published by Russian hackers to discredit Clinton. He reports that the bots proved highly effective, using #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times and making #HillaryDown a trending hashtag on Twitter. It was the first time another country used technology to attack the U.S. elections.
Twitter has collectivized culture, providing an accessible forum for all types of immoral information. This cultural shift made its way into society, creating a new reality for America’s socioeconomic landscape. As society and culture changed, so did the country’s political scene. None of these changes seem to be positive. Recall Justine Sacco’s tweet. It was intended as a joke for her friends who follow her on Twitter, but it quickly branded her as a racist. Brett Stephens wrote that politics can either open the way to the “elevation of our souls,” or it will do the opposite. He then urged people who care about politics and souls to get off Twitter. Considering how Twitter is being maliciously used by so many opposing external influences to manipulate the masses, perhaps Stephens is right.
Faina, Joseph. “Twitter and the New Publicity.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics.
Gainous, Jason and Wagner, Kevin M. Tweeting to Power.
Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur
Leavitt, Alex. “From #FollowFriday to YOLO: Exploring the Cultural Salience of Titter Memes.” Twitter and Society.
Miller, Robert and Melton, James. Behavior and Information Technology.
Shane, Scott. “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” The New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/us/politics/russia-facebook-twitter-election.html>
Stephens, Brett. “How Twitter Pornified Politics.” The New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/opinion/how-twitter-pornified-politics.html>