Twitter and the Public Square

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852). Public domain.

For years, Twitter was hailed as a cure-all for the ills of 21st-century life. It eliminates gatekeepers, they said. Now everyone has a platform! Writers can easily connect with their readers! Journalists can discover and report on stories as they break! Politicians will be more accessible than ever! Proponents lauded the platform as a modern-day version of the village commons where the free flow of ideas and opinions would create healthier democracies. People pointed to the way Arab Spring protestors, Occupy Wall Street, and the #MeToo movement used Twitter to organize their efforts for social and political change. Even I bought into the hype, viewing the platform as an unfiltered news source and a promotional tool all rolled into one.

We were wrong.

Starting in the mid-2010s, Twitter’s flaws were laid bare as demagogues and trolls weaponized it. Misinformation skyrocketed and crowds of followers were whipped up into dangerous mobs. And it wasn’t just Twitter. Facebook was hijacked by conspiracy theorists to spread lies like wildfire and state-sponsored hackers leveraged its algorithm to shape the outcome of elections. But while Facebook was vilified for its inaction and ineptitude, Twitter’s reputation survived relatively untarnished, even as it allowed the likes of Donald Trump to threaten his opponents and for legions of anonymous users to hurl abuse, slurs, death threats, and harassment.

Somehow, the faithful convinced themselves that despite the hateful rhetoric and the real-world consequences of proxy wars being fought through its app, Twitter was fundamentally a good thing. Or at least, it was a neutral entity with a capacity for good if the right guardrails were in place.

We came to equate Twitter — and all social media by extension — as the second coming of the Athenian ideal of direct democracy, where everyone could contribute their voice to discussions on a global scale. Then, a billionaire who disagreed with the company’s moderation practices swooped in to buy it, and I was reminded that Twitter isn’t the public square. It never was. We aren’t recreating the Greek polis1. If anything, we are living through a resurgence of the Gilded Age, when rich aristocrats accountable to no one slandered their critics in the newspapers they owned.

Is there hope? Perhaps Twitter’s new owner, who claims to be a free speech “absolutist,” won’t dismantle moderation policies which reign in some of the platform’s darkest impulses. Maybe there will be a renewed commitment to protect vulnerable groups from online bullying and harassment. It’s possible there will be a slow exodus to some other social media provider, or that we’ll simply retreat to our individual corners of the Internet, cocooning ourselves in a decentralized network of blogs and mailing lists. I’m not sure what I’ll do. A lot of the traffic to my website comes from Twitter. No other platform provides as big a reach for writers and artists who depend on social media for their livelihood, so many of us stay, even as it comes as an increasingly steep ethical price.

Last week, I listened to an episode of the Rumble Strip podcast. The episode describes how, in many small towns in New England, the entire town meets once a year to debate and vote on the issues facing their community. It’s a remarkable reminder that true democracy happens face-to-face in coffee shops and high school gyms. It’s slow, hard work that relies on a common understanding of the rules of engagement, respect for those who disagree with us, and a shared goal of caring for our neighbors. As we choke on social media’s grip on our national conversation, we’ve largely lost the art of civil debate and shared governance. I don’t know if we can get back to that place, but I hope it isn’t too late.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and podcaster in Tacoma, WA. His work has appeared in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. Ironically, you can follow him on Twitter, but you can also join his mailing list for more musings (which might be better in the long run). His debut audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, is available wherever you enjoy podcasts.

Further Reading: Elon Mush bought Twitter. What’s next? (PBS Newshour)

  1. Note: The Athenian system of democracy, while innovative, was far from ideal, with citizenship limited to a small group of free men allowed to participate in the political sphere, with women and slaves excluded. The ancient Greeks struggled to keep their democratic experiment alive before ultimately abolishing it in favor of rule by a small oligarchy.
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