“Time-rich liberals and the unemployed.” This was how Spiked editor, Brendan O’Neill, summarised the British Twittersphere’s most visible users. Regardless of whether you have an account on Twitter or have only heard of the service, one cannot ignore its role. Activists during the Arab Spring, strident American celebrities and British academics have all together moved over part of their communication from internal channels to the more external Twitter.
O’Neill made another interesting observation: when the issue of proportional electoral system was discussed in the UK, 76.1 percent of the Twitter posts were sympathetic to reform. In the 2011 elections, 32.1 per cent of the population voted for proportional representation. The results illustrated something about the big discussion forum of our time: Twitter users are not a mirror of society. You cannot, as some erred in the medium’s early years, believe that Twitter is the place where the voice of the people is manifested.
I want to make a small attempt to draw a new geography for the Swedish public debate. In any case, as it appeared in 2009, when Twitter began in earnest to become a well-used forum for politicians, journalists and commentators.
Still, the major media houses endure, along with their national newspapers, local newspapers and specialist journals. The daily press is characterised by portents and crises, as well as mergers and online initiatives that rarely give adequate results. In parallel, there is the public service which, thanks to tax money, is steady and plays an increasing role in public debate.
The non-professional equivalent of the press is the debate arenas: forums and social media, where current affairs are discussed and commented on. To not have a Facebook account or some similar service is rather the exception in our time. Social commentators who are not on Twitter often have difficulty in establishing themselves in public. And so we turn finally to the non-established forum, Flashback.
Journalists use Twitter in a relatively simple way. They monitor the stream with interest and for key players in the social debate. What are the key talking points today? What is upsetting people and is therefore relevant to pick up in their own coverage?
The contrast between Twitter and Flashback is interesting, how they are treated in the mainstream media, and how they are described as discussion forums. Flashback and Twitter are now Sweden’s unrivalled debate venues. On Twitter throng the elite and activists, where journalists pick up the day’s beat and allegedly popular topics. Flashback is the undergrowth, where everything beyond the mainstream gathers, from political extremists to people with special interests. Sure, journalists use Flashback, but it’s usually just for information retrieval and is seldom mentioned in ongoing debates.
In the public sphere, by contrast, Twitter has gained an undeservedly good reputation, while Flashback is most often described as a playground for right-wing extremists.
Let me address some relatively common beliefs about Twitter’s advantages. Twitter has in no way made us more global in our political discourse. There is virtually no overlap between Sweden and, for example, our Nordic neighbours. The hot issues being debated on Twitter are still Swedish topics, discussed in Swedish, and by individuals active in Swedish public life. The medium has only moved our provincialism to a new medium.
The other common perception is that Twitter has democratised political discourse. The Swedish public online is probably as, if not more, segregated than in a Swedish city. A similar observation of the American political debate on Twitter was made in a study by the University of Georgia. The conclusion was that Twitter reinforces group differences: the left discusses with the left, and the right with the right. Twitter can rather be likened to a map with small, interconnected islands where political beliefs and interests define users.
Even the opportunity for all voices to be heard is doubtful when it comes to Twitter. The service is very much a hierarchical discussion forum, where the number of followers you have directly determines whether you will be heard. On internet forums like Family Life or Flashback, however, all user’s posts appear in discussion threads. The democratic effect of Twitter is rather about the distance to those in power being considerably shorter. The threshold for interpersonal contact becomes lower and the conversational tone less formal.
On Flashback, discussions proceed in the shadow of the broad public. Flashback’s unpolished character means that initiated and long-term analyses exist side-by-side with coarse, vulgar and aggressive attacks. Anonymity, and the important internal rule to not ‘out’ other users, lead to the forum being both a vent for uncomfortable opinions and for pent-up aggression.
The difference is actually very simple between these two arenas in the Swedish public debate: on Twitter are the established – those with a name and a title in the established channels. On Flashback, it is the opposite.
This has implications for how the people’s discussions are depicted. Sometimes, news pops up in our newspapers with headlines such as ’storm in social media’, followed by some controversial subject on Twitter. On the other hand, there rarely or never appear any references to controversial discussion threads on Flashback. Twitter has created an unfair portrayal of the type of political discussion that is really common in Sweden. ‘Proportional voting’ became a huge media debate in Britain, despite the fact that support was weak for reform. In December 2014, a discussion on Twitter raged in Sweden about funding cuts for cultural magazines, despite the fact that interest from the public was hardly comprehensive.
When I, in a radio debate, urged politicians to go out and debate on Flashback as part of an effort to reduce contempt for politicians, there swiftly came the reactions on Twitter. Eric Rosen, with 15,000 followers on Twitter and editor at Aftonbladet’s Politism commented: ”Now Cwejman holds up Flashback as a better forum for political discussion than Twitter? What the…?” It is notoriously difficult to notice the plank in your own eye. Twitter is a convenient platform for a chattering establishment. Rosen, who himself is present and established in the political stream from morning to night on Twitter is, of course, convinced of the medium’s democratic qualities.
Twitter and Flashback are today Sweden’s largest political debate venues – something easily proved by a search for political keywords or topic subjects.
Combined with our semi-public Facebook walls, these are the places where Swedes discuss politics and social issues with each other. A greater understanding of the fact that these venues represent the basis for the political debate should also lead to a discussion about how we portray and treat them. The democratising proximity to powerful people on Twitter also has a downside. The drive is lightning fast and the conformism sometimes deafening. Flashback is, on the other hand, much broader, more open and more free. But the anonymity and the feeling of isolation from society’s centre ground make this forum a gathering place for racism and a brutal tone.
It would be a mistake by Sweden’s establishment, politicians and journalists to ignore the new venues and places where people are discussing things. The self-righteous finding that one, through transparency on Twitter, is connected to social media, risks leaving a large part of the actual societal debate in permanent shadow. The conclusion does not need to be to embrace everything that happens in other forums, but a greater realisation that public debate is segregated is a much-needed step towards a more inclusive democratic discourse.
Adam Cwejman is project manager at the thinktank Timbro.
Adam Cwejman är politisk redaktör i Göteborgs-Posten.