Public policy and Twitter

It is great that 321 million people can communicate their public policy thoughts and ideas through the social media platform Twitter.

But that doesn't mean it is thoughtful communication.

The emergence of social media platforms has allowed virtually every American in recent years the opportunity to provide input on national issues, in foreign policy and domestic policy.  But we are finding that it has its limitations and could be at least partially responsible for the ideological blinders placed on policymakers. 

Whichever policy side you prefer, Twitter is a blunt force instrument, devoid of consensus-building and honest back-and-forth conversation.  It fails to allow individuals to learn and understand from each other's perspective.


1. Twitter doesn't allow for substantive discussion.  Although Twitter has increased its number of allowable characters from 140 to 280, suggestions for solving most policy issues need more than 280 total characters, including punctuation.  Most Americans have trouble articulating the problem with that constraint.   

2. Twitter is not representative of popular opinion.  We have known this since 2013, when Pew Research released public opinion data demonstrating that Twitter is not a reliable snapshot of American views.  The overall reach of Twitter is around 13% of adults; only 3% said they regularly tweet or retweet news or news headlines.  Pew Research found that Twitter-users were younger than the general public and more likely Democrats.  Moreover, people under the age of 18 can participate in Twitter, and it also may include people living outside the United States.  National public opinion surveys limit those under the age of 18 and generally prohibit non-U.S. residents from participating.  This makes the Twitter results less reliable. 

3. Twitter anonymity reduces how seriously it can be taken.  Anonymity allows for little accountability.  Tweets now serve as propaganda to further a person's ideological view and often encourage crass and often offensive language.  Diverse groups are dismissed because of people's perceptions, not their argument.  Every policy issue generates hysteria, with both sides attempting to win the "Twitter battle" of generating the most likes and retweets, which has little meaning and no real consequence.

4. Twitter allows the dominance of mob rule, which is unhealthy for the Republic.  This is the most dangerous element of the social media.  Unaccountable people can gang up on someone offering a policy solution and try to ruin his reputation.  It is commonplace for the media to report on this mob rule as news.

Pew research on Twitter concluded, "[T]he reaction to political events on Twitter reflects a combination of the unique profile of active Twitter users and the extent to which events engage different communities and draw the comments of active users.  While it does provide an interesting look at how communities of interest respond to different circumstances, it does not reliably correlate with the overall reaction of adults nationwide."

Media personalities swear by Twitter and its ability to immediately impart what is transpiring in public policy.  But this immediacy, combined with snarky personal interjections, limits our ability to examine the implications, known and unknown, of public policy solutions.  We need to turn away from our reliance on Twitter if we are serious in solving issues facing our nation.

Rather than firing off emotional blasts of 280 characters or less, we should all engage in serious discussion to solve the public policy issues facing all us.

Dr. David K. Rehr is professor and director of the Center for civic Engagement at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University.