Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Deep Breath, Democracy, and Twitter Blocks

Thomas Lukaszuk, Deputy Premier  of Alberta and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, has a very active Twitter account (@LukaszukMLA) – 8923 tweets and counting as of today.  Apparently this account has been in existence for less than two years.  It is commendable that he is taking advantage of social media, though I must admit that I am often bemused by the disconnect between the flow of information that he provides (via the #abpse hashtag) and that provided by others participating in the same dialogue.

Recently a number of Twitter users have reported that their accounts have been blocked by the Minister’s.  There is obvious anger about the Minister’s blocking, frequently expressed in conjunction with alarm about the state of democracy in Alberta.  The image below gives some sense of the situation.

My opinion? Everyone should take a deep breath, exhale slowly, step back, and consider things a bit more objectively and calmly.

First, I find it a bit of a stretch to consider that direct access to a politician via an unblocked Twitter account is a cornerstone of democracy.  Hopefully political dialogue requires more depth than is available in missives that can be no longer than 140 characters, and on average contain only 11 words!  And presumably democracy has been around a lot longer than Twitter, which was created in March of 2006.

Second, an objective examination of the tone of #abpse tweets over the past few months indicates a growing (and understandable) rancor.  There have been many negative tweets directed towards the Minister that have been personal in nature, and typically include his account name to appear directly in his Twitter feed.  I, for one, do not feel that this is particularly helpful or constructive, even though it conveys the emotions of the many affected by #abpse budget cuts.  If I was on the receiving end of this, then I would deal with it with whatever tools are available.  And, of course, account blocking is a perfectly reasonable tool to use in this case.  Sometime I’m surprised that the Minister’s account hasn’t disappeared completely!

Third, and related to the point above, if an open line of Twitter communication to the Minister is important, then perhaps we should consider the tone of our tweets before we share them.  I have no idea how many accounts he has blocked, I do not know who he has blocked, and I have no knowledge about the tweet content that results in being blocked.  If innocuous tweets lead to an account being blocked, then that would be unfortunate (but see below).  However, I am sure that the Minister’s account has seen a flood of tweets that were more than a little charged.  

Fourth, account blocking doesn’t prevent Twitter posts from being processed.  A blocked account cannot communicate with @LukaszukMLA directly, but can easily search for his tweets.  Similarly, I would be surprised if the Minister himself doesn’t search for #abpse tweets, seeing as he often uses that hashtag.  He can easily keep up with what he might be missing due to his blocking of some accounts.

Of course, keeping up with the public opinion expressed in Twitter is something that may be very important for the Minister to do.

In a recent column in The Guardian, John Naughton argues that Twitter provides a key technology for societies to discuss political issues, and suggests that recent debates by governments on either side of the Atlantic have been affected by electronically expressed public opinion.  Naughton’s column in The Guardian provides a link to an interesting paper from Carnegie Mellon University that shows that Twitter data is not only highly consistent with ‘gold standard’ public opinion surveys, but actually provides a leading indicator of survey results.  That is, Twitter analysis can ‘scoop’ the pollsters.  Apparently Twitter predicted not only the overall result of the latest provincial election in British Columbia, but also made accurate predictions about the seat distribution across all parties.  (It is not perfect, though.  Twitter analyses did not predict the results of the recent provincial election in Nova Scotia.)

In short, there are good reasons to keep #abpse tweets flowing, and they may provide important and accurate information to the Minister and his government regarding public opinion.  It is unfortunate that he has blocked some accounts.  But don’t worry about democracy: we still have it, and can exercise it at the ballot box during the next provincial election.

1 comment:

  1. An insightful commentary, and all well and good, Michael. That said, and as the writer of one of those Tweets, above (the obscene one, naturally), the minister has to appreciate that his own too-often dismissive, smarmy, and insulting comments on Twitter - aimed particularly at faculty and staff - have ignited much of the negative responses from others.
    Many of these folks are in danger of losing their careers, or have already lost them. For the minister - who, let's remember, is charged with advocating for his portfolio at the cabinet table - to offer only snide remarks, Stalinist hints about what's acceptable to teach, and efforts to co-opt students, is thoroughly unprofessional and counter-productive. If there is any sense that this "minister" has any empathy and/or sympathy for the huge blind-side cuts to #abpse, he has certainly hidden them under a bushel of self-serving insults and jokes.
    Perhaps if #abpse had a cabinet ally, rather than a ministerial enemy, the Tweets would still be critical of the government, but they would likely be far less raw and angry.