Twitter has been hailed as a groundbreaking medium for open discussions on politics and society. But a new study claims that the social network may do less to foster open debate than it does to simply amplify celebrity voices.
Researchers from University of Pittsburgh, Northeastern University, and Cornell University sifted through nearly 300 million tweets to see how people communicate during the 2012 presidential election season. They hoped to find out how people’s reactions to live media events like an election changed the course of public discussions. Instead, researchers found that people preferred to retweet prominent commentators like liberal comedian Bill Maher and Republican strategist Karl Rove.
“Frankly, we’re rather disappointed,” Drew Margolin, one of the study’s authors from Cornell University said in a news release. “Social media has so much potential to improve the diversity of voices and quality of exchanges in political discussion by giving individuals the technological capability to compete with the mass media in disseminating information, setting agendas and framing conversation.”
According to the study, the top 25 percent of users’ tweets accounted for almost three out of every four retweets. Even though more than one in five people on Twitter use the microblogging site to engage in political debate, the almost 200,000 observed users retweeted celebrities such as left-leaning comedian Bill Maher, and conservative media personalities Sean Hannity and Karl Rove the most.
Retweeting celebrities was especially high among newer Twitter users with few followers (less than 90) but was common for typical users with up to 1,000 followers. The study also found that celebrities or elite users tended to reply to other celebrities, and while they rarely retweeted another user, it was usually another celebrity. They also replied to messages just as often as Twitter “rookies” did.
Twitter users are the most active during live media events such as the Oscars, the World Cup or presidential debates. But despite Twitter’s reputation as a unique platform for open conversations from a variety of voices, users seem less interested in articulating their own thoughts or those of their non-famous friends or followers.
Part of that could be because people don’t feel they have the expertise to comment on live events. “The uncertainty of live events may predispose users to seek information from authorities and their expert sense-making processes rather than from their peers,” the study stated. That trend is exacerbated by Twitter’s paradigm that the most popular accounts get the most visibility and therefore have more clout in a public forum.
Social media has generally been lauded as an ideal platform for public discourse. Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in increasing awareness of various issues, increasing voter turnout, predicting elections, and bringing awareness to issues that would otherwise fly under the media’s radar. The Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls brought worldwide attention to nearly 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram earlier this year. Twitter was also key during the Arab Spring, Tunisian and Eqyptian democratic revolutions.
But while social media revolutionizes how the world responds to political and social events, it may be a double-edged sword. Researchers warned that the tendency to fixate on a small number of opinions encourages the proliferation of rumors, misinformation, and political polarization.