Is Twitter ruining politics?


A portrait of the Twitter logo in Ventura, California in this photo taken December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/Files

Mark Harris, a Republican political consultant writing in "Campaigns and Elections" magazine makes a controversial point: Twitter is killing politics -- or at least robbing young operatives and political reporters of the skills they need to do their jobs well.  Writes Harris, a partner at Cold Spark Media:

Nothing has done more to ruin young press operatives than Twitter. The basic blocking and tackling of press has been lost to the instantaneous food fight of the social media site famous for its 140-character delivery. Snark, substance-less witticisms, and gotcha moments on social media have replaced the hard spade work of pitching stories, developing relationships with reporters, and the basics of an efficient press operation.

Reporters have an over-reliance on Twitter, which creates a feedback loop. Press teams get excited when they get a reporter to send a favorable tweet, or even better, a sarcastic tweet about their opponent. But they forget how few people that reaches versus the many times more a good article in print, or an ad on the evening news, would reach.

Harris has a point. The political world is a very small group of people composed, primarily, of politicians, the staff who work for them and the reporters who cover them. And, like any small and largely self-contained universe -- most of these people live and work in and around DC -- there is an echo-chamber effect in which small things (or even no-things) are made to seem like big things.  Twitter didn't create that reality but it has super-sized it.  It functions -- at least for many people who cover the daily ins and outs of politics -- as a sort of grown up (and public) version of the note-passing that went on in junior high school.  Twitter fights are begun, won (or lost) and resolved without 99 percent of the public knowing about them. There is nothing worse than watching a Democratic and a Republican operative fight on Twitter. Nothing.  (Worth noting: As of January 2014, roughly one in five of all Internet users were on Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center.) If the phrase "tempest in a teapot" didn't already exist, someone would have created it to describe political Twitter.

And Harris is also right that Twitter has become the default news-monitoring tool for the vast majority of political reporters and staffers.  I can't even count the number of times that I have sent an email to the Fix posse with a bit of news under the subject line: "Twitter is saying this is happening." And, in any newsroom you walk through, you will usually see two monitors at most desks; one is for the everyday business of journalism, the other has Twitter (or Hootsuite or Tweetdeck) open -- an ever-updating news feed.

Harris is convinced that is a terrible thing. I am less convinced of that.  In days gone by, reporters kept a watchful eye on the Associated Press wire to make sure they weren't missing any news.  (Many still do.) Twitter has simply become -- for many reporters -- the way they ensure they aren't missing anything. (This of course is a fallacy; you are always missing something. But, you get the idea.)

The other thing that Twitter has helped fuel -- and which Harris mentions only in passing in his piece -- is the evolution of the relationship between politician, staffer and reporter.  The phone has, for many reporters (including me) become a thing of the past. Communication is almost exclusively done via email and Twitter.  (This is not to say all journalists do their job the way I do; my friend and colleague Paul Kane spends mosts of his days in the U.S. Capitol, talking with staff and senators.)  Harris seems to view that transformation from a primarily phone and in-person relationship to one largely conducted via electronic means as a bad thing since it means the loss of critical relationship between source and reporter.  Maybe. But, I also think it's entirely possible that the source-reporter relationship hasn't disappeared, it's just moved to another medium. Email vs phone. Twitter versus in-person chat.

Viewed broadly then, I am still on Twitter's side when it comes to its influence on politics. Has it helped supercharge some of the traits -- making mountains out of molehills, insularity in terms of opinion, navel-gazing, egotism -- the political community has always possessed? Absolutely. But, it's also become a remarkable information source for political junkies -- whether you work in the business or not -- and provided insight on and access to politicians (not to mention celebrities and athletes) that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

Put simply: I'd rather be a political reporter (and political junkie) in a world with Twitter than in one without it. But, like cable TV, partisan websites, news aggregators, radio and all the other ways to get and share information, simply surfing Twitter can't be a stand-in for real reporting and source-building -- no matter what way you choose to do that.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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