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Twitter trolls are destroying democracy, warn eggheads

Remember when social media was going to bring about a golden age of interaction?

By Kieren McCarthy, 4 Nov 2016

Twitter trolls are undermining what political analysts had predicted would be a new form of responsive democracy.

Far from being an opportunity to engage directly with voters, researchers found that the more politicians tried to actively interact with their constituents, the more abuse they faced.

The eggheads, based in Europe and the US, analyzed just under 800,000 tweets from over 650 politicians based in Germany, Greece, Spain and the UK and found that the percentage of "impolite" tweets directed at them went from 8 per cent when they did nothing to an extraordinary 40 per cent when they actively tried to engage with voters.

If that wasn't depressing enough, the paper notes that the level of abuse increases almost exactly proportionally to how engaging people's messages are. The more they asked to hear people's views, the more those views were insulting.

"Most politicians who post anything quickly become subject to constant personal abuse," the paper, published in the Journal of Communication, notes.

Such is the level of unpleasantness and vehemence that most politicians simply give up and use their Twitter accounts to simply broadcast messages rather than seek input or discussion. Something that, ironically, has led to them being criticized for ignoring voters and not being sufficiently open or engaging.

"Twitter was supposed to open the door for more citizen voice and participation in the political process via different means, counteracting one of the main inhibitors of political involvement," the paper sighs, looking back on those halcyon days of, um, three years ago. "Despite this promise, neither the adoption nor the use of Twitter by politicians managed to live up to these normative expectations."

And the reason is, of course, because Twitter has become a cesspool where the worst sort of people revel in their ability to bully and cajole with a large degree of anonymity and almost no repercussions. The company's failure to address that issue has in turn led to a persistent culture of unpleasantness.

The paper argues that public servants need to prepare themselves before venturing out on Twitter: "Those who decide to take the risk to engage in interactive communication ought to know what to expect and to have a specialized team that can deal with this issue."

Process

The tweets – and their responses – were run through a language analyzer and rated on the politicians' side according to how "engaging" they were, and on the respondents' side according to how polite/impolite they were.

While countries displayed slightly different levels of overall politeness – the UK topping the polls as the most rude – the trend was the same. More open = more abuse.

Despite facing the unpleasant realities of Twitter, the researchers still insisted there was an opportunity. "From a democratic point of view, Twitter provides an incredible opportunity for interactive communication between candidates and citizens," the paper waxes.

"On Twitter, candidates can listen to citizens' feedback directly, while they also have the opportunity to respond using a platform whose laconic conversational structure allows for short and concise messages that enable strategic ambiguity and reduce the danger of loss of content control. Interactive use has been shown to have benefits for both sides, with politicians standing to especially benefit by being generally seen more positively when they interact with the public than when they don't."

Plus, of course: your life can be threatened, you can be bombarded with personal abuse and threats of violence, you can have your positions and views misrepresented, and every fool in the pub can make jokes at your expense. It's a democratic dream come true.

Of course, with just a few days before the US elections take place – elections in which tweets have had a ludicrously large influence on overall discourse – both Clinton and Trump get a mention in the paper.

"In an instructive example of a candidate's Twitter communication strategy gone sideways, in 2015 Hillary Clinton became the target of an immense volume of trolling after asking young people to express their views on their student loan debts on Twitter using three emojis or less," the paper notes.

"One of the features of Twitter political communication is that, alongside the possibility for productive exchanges, there is also the possibility of controversy, and controversy on Twitter often implies virality and spectacle for the audience."

And The Donald?

"Although the recent campaign of Donald Trump has shown that tweeting can be turned into a spectacle – which in turn could be a currency in the political Twittersphere – very often even well-crafted tweets approved by political communication specialists end up being damaging for candidates."

Exactly how damaging we are likely to find out on November 9. ®

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