Changing Democracy 140 Characters at a Time

Twitter is our Athenian agora. It is reshaping our democracy. A president, prime minister, pope, or peasant like me can stand and proclaim whatever they wish. Within seconds, they will be applauded by some while others, wearing the technological robes of Socrates, will tear their pronouncement asunder. In commemoration of my second anniversary on Twitter, I offer six things I have learned.


It teaches. The most popular tweets make a short statement or pose an interesting question and then link to a related article; usually in a respected newspaper, magazine, or professional journal. People are thereby exposed to ideas and facts they might never otherwise consider. An informed electorate is the harbinger of a thriving democracy and the bane of those who wish to distract, mislead, or divide.

It mocks. Twitter is where negative ads and pomposity go to die. Pity the politician who makes a speech or posts an ad or tweet that is in any way disingenuous or contradicts something previously said or claimed. You know that Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart in the United States and Rick Mercer in Canada rub their hands and praise comedy’s Gods for making their work so simple. It is like the days when they wrote their best bits by quoting Sarah Palin verbatim. Twitter doesn’t wait. The fact checking and rebuttal is done in an instant. The truth is posted, an old film clip or article is linked, and the mocking begins. And we all know – well, everyone except Ms. Palin, I guess – that once they start laughing at you, you’re done.

It attacks. I once posed what I thought was a reasonable question about the American gun control debate – something about how a few those supporting the second amendment were having trouble with the first. Wow! It can get ugly out there and fast. NRA trolls are as lightning quick and wolverine vicious as political party trolls. They are as fair and accurate as those I picture in their parent’s window-less basement without access to their meds or spell check. But in a way, that’s OK. Democracy is messy. Even with unfair and unreasonable attacks thrashing in from the sides there is debate. I’ve witnessed debates tumble from vitriol to reason and, except for trolls with an ugly job to do, a softening of positions and a glimmering of tolerance and understanding. There is very often acknowledgment that a different opinion, when based on evidence, is not wrong, just different.

It scorns. I almost felt sorry for CNN when, in its latest effort to profit from tragedy, reported things that were quickly discovered to be false. As I had seen before, tweets began announcing that CNN was reporting on the Confederacy having won the Civil War, that John Lennon had shot someone in New York, and more. The respect most of those on Twitter still feel for newspapers and peer-reviewed journals is matched by the disdain with which they hold television news – all television news. It’s no wonder. Follow Twitter for a day and then watch the evening network news. See if you can find one thing that is new or addressed in adequate depth. See how much that truly matters is ignored while fluff is disguised as news. It becomes clear why more and more people are getting news analysis on the Comedy network and how Twitter is creating its own fourth estate.

It earns. Many confuse Twitter for a confessional, diary, or billboard. Some think it’s a porn site. Those folks are generally blocked and ignored. Few on Twitter care to see what you’re having for dinner and nearly all want you to keep your clothes on, thank you very much. However, as candidate Barack Obama proved in America and Justin Trudeau is proving in Canada, Twitter is a powerful political tool. It is tremendously effective in fundraising to earn money and friend-raising to earn adherents. It allows a party to throw ideas up a technological flag pole and instantly see who and how many salute, jeer, or gather a Twitter flash-mob to tear it down.

It inspires. Bill Cosby and Canada’s Jian Ghomeshi have been heartbreaking and bile-raising reminders of how far we have to go in addressing the treatment of and respect for women. A year ago, long before the stars fell, a group of women on Twitter used a hashtag to begin noting incidents of having suffered sexual harassment. And then came more and then more. As the numbers grew into the thousands and then millions, so did the outrage and desire to act. Then, just as that campaign was catching fire, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield began Tweeting awe-inspiring images from the real stars. While commanding the American space station he sent stunning pictures that moved millions of Twitter users to silent reflection. The images reminded us, as did the women, that we are all brothers and sisters on this tiny planet and maybe we should treat each other a little better.

Unless one is careful, Twitter can murder time. But so can any social media, or TV, or even books for that matter. But time can’t be wasted, it can only be spent, and a few minutes on Twitter each day is a compelling experience. Like TV and, yes, even books, you learn quickly to wade through the junk and find what matters. Social media will continue to evolve. Political leaders who fail to understand its power will remain its victims. We owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which it is changing the nature of our public discourse and how through those changes, the manner in which we govern ourselves. Like it or not, our democracy is being changed, 140 characters at a time.

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