The Twitter Citizen

December 19, 2014
Raina Delisle
Brett Bergie

A provincial budget touches on all areas of public spending and public policy. So when researcher Brett Bergie decided to study the Twitter discussion surrounding the 2013 Alberta budget, he expected to see vibrant, diverse discussion on the social media platform. Instead, he discovered the conversation was dominated by traditional media.  

“I was expecting to see a bit more diverse participation and also diverse perspectives,” says Bergie, a graduate of the MA in Professional Communication program. “I was surprised to see that so much of the conversation was being driven by traditional media agents and to the detriment of the conversation. You start seeing all of the information coalescing around certain perspectives from media or the media trying to fragment that group to serve their private interests.”

In Bergie’s thesis, The Twitter Citizen: Contributing to Civil Society Discussion or Adding to the Noise?, he found that 1,004 Twitter users contributed 2,608 tweets that included one or both of the hashtags #ABbudget and #Budget2013 over a three-day period. Participants included citizens, media, labour unions, interest groups, financial institutions and politicians. While the range of tweeters suggests diversity, the news media formed a dominant force that drove the discussion.

“I was surprised to see the very strong influence of traditional media actors,” says Bergie, who’s chief of staff at Bow Valley College. “They weren’t a sizable group relative to active citizens, but they had a very profound and dominant impact on the discussion, and what surprised me too was the degree to which this was accepted by the Twitter culture.”

Bergie notes that the media fragmented the audience by moving users back to traditional media content through hyperlinks or through more overt attempts such as inviting users to discuss the budget on their websites.

“This public space that we assume is there is being contested. And it’s being contested by very powerful players who are building their brand and their trust with constituents or with customers, so we trust them to make our opinion for us.”

In the Twitterverse, this translates into retweeting established opinion-makers, such as politicians or journalists, and linking to external web content instead of stating one’s own opinion and engaging directly with other users. Bergie’s study found, for example, that only four per cent of tweets actively engaged another user in a discussion.

Still, Bergie says the platform has significant potential and there were several positives to take away from his study. For example, people were very willing to share information, which is important for a democratic discussion, and users understood the discussion community to be a resource where they can ask questions.

There has been a lot of interest in Bergie’s work. Last month, he presented a TEDx Talk based on his research. He is also further developing his thesis in collaboration with his supervisor Jaigris Hodson, preparing it for publication through Peter Lang Press as part of an anthology entitled Hashtag Publics: The Power and Politics of Networked Discourse Communities. Bergie says he’s grateful for the opportunities to reflect on his research and findings.

“I was thrilled to have the opportunity to present a TEDx Talk to break the findings down in a more accessible way,” he says. “I found that in preparing for the talk it clarified my thinking on my own research findings in a way I wasn’t able to achieve before. Because Jaigris and I are still actively working on this project it gives me the opportunity to now go back and clean up some of my analysis. I think I can go a bit deeper.”

At his TEDx Talk, Bergie noted that social media can be a very powerful forum for communities to come together, to share information, to organize, to share resources and to articulate their aspirations for society.

“Clearly something important is happening here and it’s worthy of some exploration,” he says. “People need to feel comfortable that there are spaces open to them to communicate with one another and that no subject is too taboo to introduce into the discussion and perhaps move it from the periphery to the centre to ultimately drive public opinion.”

For now, Twitter is not doing that, says Bergie, noting that there’s a culture of deference, which he explains as “deferring to others to come up with an opinion and then circulating a view that we feel comfortable with.” However, as social media continues to mature, it will be interesting to see if the culture changes, he says.

“No public space is ever just given to a society to communicate and to organize. It is something we have to fight for and something we have to carve out ourselves.”