The Trouble With Tweeting

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Politicians have been using social media like Twitter since its inception. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who thought social media would lead to greater government transparency, better public policy, or make elected officials more accountable has been proven dead wrong.

No politician can match President Trump in terms of using social media in a mostly moronic and patently pathetic manner. On the other hand, there really are not that many good political role models out there. For most politicians, including Wisconsin pols, social media is a cheap form of public relations, completely self-serving without even a pretense of being anything more.

After insisting for two years that we would be returning to the moon, President Trump all of a sudden tweeted that NASA should not even be talking about it. He also revealed that astronomy is not exactly his area of expertise.

If we narrow our discussion of social media to just Twitter, we do not have (thankfully) in Wisconsin a political equivalent of Donald Trump. Neither Governor Evers nor any member of the legislature rely on Twitter to make political waves. But political tweeting in WI does have problems, and all of them are depressing for anyone who would like to see an upgrade in our political discourse. Here are the major problems with the way politicians use Twitter in our state:

*There’s no obligation to respond. Even in Wisconsin’s most gerrymandered legislative districts, there exists substantive disagreements among citizens on key issues facing the district and state. Yet when a representative tweets about an issue, s/he is under no obligation to respond to contrary points of view, leading those who disagree to come to the conclusion that there’s no point in even bothering to contact the official to offer disagreement. For example, lots of Wisconsin Republicans recently took to Twitter to announce that they would be supporting “Born Alive” legislation on abortion without having to respond to one question about it, including questions about why such legislation even was even on the table given that no one made it a major issue in the 2018 elections. Democrats largely responded by taking the GOP to task for not supporting Governor Evers’ health care initiatives, but there too they were under no obligation to respond. The tweets thus become nothing more than a battle of press releases and talking points.

*Lack of response invites trolling. When politicians make it known that they will not respond to any substantive critique of their online statements, they invite trolling. What could be a great space for give-and-take between people of goodwill becomes instead just another exercise in the typical toxicity of Twitter.

*Trolling Further Reinforces Tribalism: Anyone who’s ever been involved in local activism knows that Americans are not as tribal as our national discourse suggests. Locally, people come together across divides frequently to work on neighborhood revitalization and other projects, rarely asking or caring about the partisan affiliation of the neighbors they are working with. Individuals who insist on injecting partisan trolling into local activism either make themselves irrelevant or become identified as part of the problem the neighbors of goodwill are struggling against.

When it comes to state and national politics, a different dynamic prevails and we become much more likely to be pitted against each other on the basis of party, race, and other factors. I agree with author John Atcheson, who argues that modern tribalism is rooted in the effort–largely successful–of 1980s Reagan-era divide-and-conquer politics that pit everyday Americans against each other while wealthy interests took control of the state and federal governments. Wisconsin was a key battleground in the elite struggle to tribalize America, evidenced perhaps most powerfully and painfully in the manner in which Act 10 became law in 2011. If you bother to read comments on the tweets of pretty much any current Wisconsin politician, a huge percentage of them are either along the lines of “I agree” or nothing but tribal trolling, very much a product of the same divide-and-conquer mindset enforced during the Act 10 battle. There’s literally no attempt to use the platform as a way to discuss, clarify, or engage disagreement in a productive manner.

Conclusion: What do we do about it?

If mainstream media in Wisconsin were a true Fourth Estate that held power accountable, we could count on it to monitor politicians’ tweets and call out the worst. While tweets and other social media are sometimes fact checked, only sensational uses of platforms get much attention. Worse, journalists will often retweet a politician’s talking point without comment, as if a partisan talking point or press release “speaks for itself.” It doesn’t.

So what do we do? My belief is that any citizen attempt to police politicians’ use of social media is probably a waste of time. At best the pols will “clean up their act” and look for most sophisticated ways to bullshit us via the platform(s). Moreover, it’s quite likely that the policing effort itself will be framed in partisan terms, with the “cops” being accused of bias, spreading fake news, etc.

I think the only real solution to all of our political ills, including politicians’ abuse of social media, is local organizing. As I noted earlier, people display an amazing tendency to solve local problems without hyper regard to the political and other identifies of the people they are working with. My spouse was able to get elected Mayor of Oshkosh last April in what most observers considered to be an upset victory. The office is nonpartisan, yet I know for a fact that her campaign gained support from a coalition of very diverse identities–political and otherwise. Perhaps because the race was nonpartisan, all of the supporters were able to focus on things that really mattered to them: who can best hold the city administration accountable? Who can best open up city government to a wider range of voices? Who’s most likely to pick up the phone or return emails when I have a problem? Etc.

A diverse coalition of people–young and old, multicultural, liberal and conservative, and other identities–helped elect Lori Palmeri as Mayor of Oshkosh in April of 2019

If we could get people organized across tribal lines at the local level, we’d be in a better position to put pressure on state and federal officials. We might even succeed in electing more people who see social media as a way to assist peoples’ movements. So the next time you get upset at a politicians’ tweet, vent your anger not by responding to them, but by going to a meeting of any local civic organization that’s involved in work you support.

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at www.tonypalmeri.com

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