Anyone who reads the news has no doubt noticed that MPs have been using Twitter a lot. Not only are the content of tweets showing up more often in news stories, but increasingly the Twitter chatter is becoming the subject of the news. Here is an example of a story, for instance, that essentially concerns a Twitter fight that broke out during a Parliamentary session (and where what was being said on Twitter was more interesting than what was being said in the house). Here is another story that is basically a Twitter story, about a politician’s tweet and the response to it.
I’m not sure how I feel about all this. I know that debate in the House of Commons is terribly degraded, that the media is only looking for soundbites, and so on. But I’m not sure we should just give up and have politicians debate one another in snippets of no more than 140 characters. Yet increasingly that’s what’s happening – all the action is being shifted to Twitter.
And yet many people seem to think that Twitter is an unqualified good. I was struck, for example, by the tone of this article in the Huffington Post, which describes MPs who are not on twitter, or not tweeting often enough, as having “missed the news that we’ve entered the 21st century.” The web site Politwitter is putting overt pressure on MPs to get on Twitter, including a “name and shame” list of “MPs without Twitter,” and an active write-in campaign to pressure them to start. A lot of this has a populist edge to it, suggesting that the MPs who don’t tweet are snobs, who think they’re too good for the rest of us.
I’m a bit skeptical about the “get with the times” argument – the suggstion that just because a technology is available, politicians should be obliged to use it. I don’t see anyone asking the general question, “do we want MPs on Twitter?” (for example, is it good for democracy for MPs to be on Twitter?)
Here I’m not so sure. On the positive side of things, you have to admire exchanges like the following (picked almost at random from the chatter that took place yesterday):
nrXic: @rmolot @nashtey @kenneyjason Even Jason Kenney has called it “An Occupation of Palestine”, so I find it funny you would say that
KenneyJason: @nrXic No, I haven’t.
So a couple of guys, having a typically endless arguments about Israel, include the federal minister in the list of addresses, when out of the blue the minister chimes in to correct the record. You have to like that. There’s a kind of horizontality and access there that we simply have never seen before. It’s not hard to think of this as good for democracy.
On the negative side of things, there is the obvious problem of reducing political argument to short exchanges of barbs. Twitter is notorious for encouraging the verbal equivalent of slap-fighting. (There’s a nice piece by Derek Powazek that describes Twitter as a perfectly malign “Argument Machine.” He imagines a situation in which “you set out to create a device that would ensnare normal, rational people and turn them into ranting lunatics” and then asks what it would look like. The answer is that it would look almost exactly like Twitter.)
Also, do we really want the Minister of Employment and Social Development sitting around at 11pm at night getting into Twitter arguments with a bunch of guys in Calgary? Doesn’t he have better things to do?
But let me instead pick up on just one small point. If there’s one thing I know I don’t like, it’s the fact that MPs are sitting in the house, tweeting while Parliament is in session (insulting one another, arguing, etc.), and often going back and forth with the journalists in the press gallery. On the one hand this distracts them, so that they have to pay attention – in real time – both to what is being said to and about them, but also what is being tweeted about them. The thing that bothers me – and maybe this is a bit persnickity – is that the Speaker of the House (as far as I know) has no ability to monitor what is being tweeted, and also no authority over it. So there are certain things that, if you were to say them to another MP in the house, you could be censured for, but you can tweet with impunity. Also, nothing said on Twitter goes into the parliamentary record. Increasingly, there are two conversions going on in Parliament – the audible one in the room, and then the inaudible one on Twitter.
This strikes me as being a hugely problematic development. Would it be reactionary to say that Twitter should banned from the House of Commons?
Another possibility would be to do what I have seen at some conferences, where all of the tweets being generated from the conference are projected onto a large screen in the conference room. So while people are speaking, you can see the Twitter reaction in real time. In principle you could set something like this up in the House of Commons. Then at least the Speaker would be able to see what is being said. Personally though I hate this – it really accentuates how distracting Twitter can be. It’s hard enough to listen to people already, without being tempted, out the corner of one’s eye, to check out the gossipy reactions of other people to what is being said. Much better, I think, just to banish Twitter.