Why Twitter Will Make the Next Election Meltdown So Much Worse

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Aug. 14 2012 3:50 AM

Tweeting the Next Election Meltdown

If the next presidential election goes into overtime, heaven help us. It’s gonna get ugly.

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Social media, including Twitter and political blogs, both increase the chance that a candidate would litigate rather than concede in the razor-thin election, and increase the chances of extreme nastiness after the vote is tallied up.

Social media seem to exacerbate the dangers of an enclave mentality. Today, thanks to Twitter and the Internet, people are encouraged to get their news only from like-minded sources that reinforce their existing worldview. These media inhibit the democratic deliberation necessary for political compromise. Back in 2000, when the Florida story was at its height, it took what felt like an interminably long time for any news outlet to post the Supreme Court’s opinion in Bush v. Gore. (I accessed it slowly over a dial-up connection.) Opinions about the controversial opinion were formed gradually and disseminated by elites: the major television and cable news networks and the leading national newspapers.

The Internet obviously provides many more outlets for individual expression than ever before. Anyone can have a Facebook page, blog, or Twitter account. Many important political blogs allow users to have publicly available “Diaries.” Comments appear on virtually all of these media. Everyone is a publisher; everyone is a critic. The technology for mass publication about our political disagreements or election disputes has emerged just as trust in mainstream media has decreased and partisanship has spiked.

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Of course, some people have always held extreme opinions and felt paranoia about how elections are run. But those opinions were often sent as letters to the editor that never saw the light of day. Now anyone with a cellphone can broadcast to the world that the Waukesha County elections clerk should have a missile shoved up her ass. The enclave can be ugly, and it allows people with extreme opinions to reinforce and legitimate each other.

Even when it is not personal and offensive, social media can shape public opinion during election disputes. The Internet allows for a kind of crowdsourcing of every decision made by every election official and judge. People can second guess every challenged ballot, piece of voting machinery, election official delay, and judicial opinion. While it sounds democratizing, much of this analysis is not particularly thoughtful or well-considered. In a world in which it is increasingly hard for people to accept objective truth—think of the idea that President Obama is a Muslim or that President Bush caused 9/11—a million comments about an election meltdown in a million partisan echo chambers sounds scary.

It’s not just our gut that tells us to be concerned about these trends. A study by scientists at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana examined more than 250,000 tweets on politics from the six weeks leading up to the 2010 U.S. congressional elections. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that Twitter users used “retweets” (reposting someone else’s message) in a highly partisan way. Approximately 93 percent of right-leaning tweeters and 80 percent of left-leaning tweeters retweeted from other users with whom they agreed. Tweets that included “mentions” of other people (which were far less frequent than retweets) linked to a more ideologically balanced group of tweeters—Democrats would mention Republican tweets and vice-versa. The use of common hashtags by Democrats and Republicans (like #wirecall in Wisconsin) had the effect of exposing users to ideas with which they were likely to disagree.

The Indiana authors found that exchanging messages across the ideological divide in this medium did not lead to moderation. Instead, the authors saw what I saw in the #wirecall thread: “Many messages contain sentiments more extreme than you would expect to encounter in face-to-face interactions, and the content is frequently associated with disparaging of the identities and views associated with users across the partisan divide. … [T]hese interactions might actually serve to exacerbate the problem of polarization by reinforcing pre-existing political biases.”

During a political battle, to know you is to hate you, especially behind the relative anonymity of the Internet.

It’s a mistake to dismiss the emotional content of political tweets and blog posts as merely people blowing off steam. The ideological echo chamber of Twitter, political blogs, and other social media reverberates to elites in the mainstream media, campaigns, and elsewhere, fueling greater partisanship. When the Democratic chair in Wisconsin retracted his statements accusing Waukesha County election official Kathy Nickolaus of “dirty tricks,” he blamed his initial comments on the “heat-of-the-moment.” If Romney-Obama goes into overtime, the “heat of the moment” could last a very long time, as Twitter-fomented anger causes people to spill into the streets. At that point, comparisons between U.S. election controversies and political uprisings overseas may not seem like such a stretch.

Richard L. Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the UC–Irvine School of Law and is writing a book on campaign finance and political equality. Follow him on Twitter.