Democracy and the Twitter Test

by George Hatjoullis

Democracy existed before the advent of Twitter. Yet an attempt to suppress Twitter, or other social media, is greeted as a blow against democracy. It is a blow against democracy. The advent of social media has changed society so fundamentally that any inhibition now undermines the democratic process. This is because each advance in technology is a socially irreversible step. Democracy existed before Radio and TV yet banning these would be a provocation for a popular uprising (what, no Corrie?). So it is with Twitter. In an augenblick, Twitter has become as intrinsic to democracy as Radio and TV. It is another example of the permissionless innovation made possible by the internet that is changing societies and breaching the barriers of physical jurisdictions. The authorities within the jurisdictions are, naturally, unhappy.

The use of Twitter does not facilitate a breach of the law of jurisdictions (unless the law prohibits the use of Twitter). The author of the Tweet is still liable for the content, as the author would be for written content through any medium. The Retweet is also sanctionable as much as the repeat of an assertion or idea might be via any other medium. Tweeters and Retweeters are traceable. So why is Twitter singled out for special treatment by authorities? The key is the facility for person-to-person interaction. It allows the formation of a global cyber-crowd to emerge instantaneously. An idea disseminated by one person can reach millions in seconds and elicit interaction among the crowd almost instantaneously. What once might have taken weeks if not months to organise can happen within the hour. The force of the cyber-crowd can initiate political change before the day is out. This is a frightening thought for the jurisdiction-based authorities. Forces of opposition can be marshalled before the authorities even know there is a problem. Of course, this is a double-edged sword and, as with all new technology, can be used for ‘evil’ as well as ‘good’.

Twitter facilitates the rapid spread of an idea globally. The idea may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It may be ‘true’ or ‘false’. It may be a legal expression or an illegal expression in some or all jurisdictions. Twitter does not judge or censor. It merely facilitates. There is no editorial control as with newspapers, radio and TV. There is no ‘code of practice’ for Tweeters or Retweeters. The only sanction is the law governing written word, and the dissemination of such word, in each jurisdiction. Twitter has connected individuals in a way that is revolutionary. In the process it has made a fundamental change to the democratic process. Effective democracy requires communication, understanding, inclusiveness, discussion, transparency and freedom of expression tempered by responsibility. Twitter ticks all these boxes.

Twitter has so enhanced democracy that it now serves as a canary in the mine. Suppression of Twitter must be viewed as suppression of democracy. It is a warning that the jurisdiction authorities feel threatened and are clamping down on any perceived threats. Newspapers, radio and TV may be allowed to continue because what is broadcast can be influenced if not entirely controlled. Twitter is always beyond control and must be suppressed.

Postscript 17/06/2018

It is interesting that in characterising Twitter as a democratic tool I also described precisely why it would be invaluable to Populists. Twitter and other social media have been invaluable tools in the rise of Populism The ability to create a ‘cyber-crowd’ cuts both ways.