Political Activism, Critical Thought and Twitter

Friday, May 1, 2009

I have a twitter account. I'm not very prolific with it, although I do use it occasionally and have an automated new blog post feed set up.

One of the things I've noticed about Twitter is that many companies are using it to generate business and advocacy groups are using it to advance their ideas. Because of this, I have followers I don't know from Adam. I just assumed some keyword flagged me for them, and they added me automatically. Since I don't feel obligated to follow those who follow me, I didn't think about it much until recently.

A friend of mine was having trouble with the Comcast services at her home, and she tweeted about it. Within 15 minutes, a Comcast technician had responded to her tweet with an offer to assist, and she's now on her way to a resolution of her problem.

Interesting business model, and my friend was impressed with her experience, and blogged about it. I'd call that a win, for both her and Comcast.

But I've also realized this can go both ways. I recently retweeted a pro-vaccine link provided by the Bad Astronomer, along with a comment of my own about how the correlation between autism and vaccines = none. I received an immediate response from anti-vax activists, providing links to their pseudo-scientific web-sites, anecdotal "evidence" of the link between vaccines and autism, and the usual ad hominem attacks on Skeptics who "don't get it." My own response was both short and civil, indicating that Twitter was hardly the medium for resolving such complex issues, and then I blocked the activists.

No harm, no foul in my case - I'm going to do my own research and make up my own mind regardless of the information provided by some nameless, faceless stranger with an axe to grind on Twitter. But I don't know about the rest of the Twitterverse. Since it was so easy for Jenny McCarthy, Poster Child for the Stoopid, to convince people of the non-existent causation between vaccines and autism, how much harm is Twitter activism doing?

So at this point I'm thinking that Twitter is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows customers to be served by their vendors in a more specific and time-sensitive way. On the other, it invites "drive-by rhetoric" on issues that are far more complex than a 140 character message.

I'm not one of those curmudgeons who shakes her fist and tells tweeters to get off her lawn, but I also don't think it's an appropriate avenue for advocacy. As a skeptic, I want more information than a 140 character tweet can give me. And yet, getting a tweet directing me to additional information on a topic I'm interested in is usually welcome.

On the whole, is Twitter and good or bad thing for critical thought? For political activism? I don't know yet. But it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

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This has been cross-posted at Nothing Sacred, the blog of the Mile-High Skeptics.

8 comments:

Nathan said...

I'm not Twittering so I have no direct experience with this, but aside from an ability to 'target' their tweets, I doubt these advocates are having any more (or less) success at changing minds than some guy standing by the side of the road with a protest poster. I suspect it's a case of either preaching to the choir or displaying how stupid 'the opposition' is. Can you say 'Westboro'?

Janiece Murphy said...

Why, yes, Nathan. Yes, I can.

Hee.

Jim Wright said...

Excellent analogy, Nathan.

Personally I was thinking that a tweet response like the kind Janiece mentioned above was a lot like shouting an angry epitaph out the car window at somebody on the sidewalk having a conservation as they zoom past at 60 miles per hour.

"Twitter" hits me as the perfect name. The shallow mindless twittering of birds in a tree, and a constant low level noise background that appears to convey information, and does, but to no great bandwidth.

Twitter is the Morse code party line of the information age.

Carol Elaine said...

Janiece, I think Twitter's affect on critical thought and activism is neutral. Those who are inclined to critical thought will take any Tweets they read with a grain of salt and investigate further, as you have. Those not inclined to critical thought (which, unfortunately, seems to be a growing contingent of society) will take Tweets on their face, especially if it solidifies their own views in their little echo chambers, as Nathan suggests.

For me, Twitter has been best for silliness with friends, following a few celebrities whom I find interesting (Brent Spiner's recent noir story unfurling in 140 character bites has been fun to read) and news alerts. It's not influencing my views on social matters, from what I can see.

Tania said...

Auto follows based on keywords are annoying. Especially when I get ones from vegan and animal rights groups. I have good friends that are active in both, but my life and lifestyle doesn't jibe with their goals. WTF?

Random Michelle K said...

I enjoy Twitter, but I don't take anything on it seriously--nor would I expect anyone to take anything I post seriously.

It's a place to be silly and have fun and occasionally get answers to questions.

But political and ethical discourse? No way.

MWT said...

CRUSH! CRUSH! CRUSH!


That's my view of Twitter, at least with Michelle on it. :D

Random Michelle K said...

YAY!

CRUSH! CRUSH! CRUSH!