Civic debate on Twitter — what can LTNs teach us?

Can we build tools that make Twitter a more constructive form? This is the third in a series of three posts present data analysis of the Twitter activity around London’s contentious Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

An LTN in Oval, photo from Lambeth.gov.uk

This is the third of a series of three posts on the Twitter debate around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. The first two focused on discovering which individuals and groups shape the LTN debate. This post asks how we could make these types of patterns visible in other civic debates on Twitter.

Buildings designed for politics, for example, the House of Commons, give immediate visual cues about who is on what side, and how big the different political groupings are. Could we do something similar for Twitter?

During the time I’ve been researching Twitter, it’s sometimes felt like it might be about to disappear or be replaced by some other platform. At one point it looked Twitter looked like it was going to be sold to Disney.

Now, it feels like Twitter has become a durable part of national debates, perhaps particularly after its proactive role in the last presidential election. It’s hard to imagine politics without Twitter now. Rather than lamenting its shortcomings, what can we do to improve it?

Augmenting Twitter

Commonplace, a platform for community decision making, has been used by at least nine Councils to gather feedback on LTNs. It is significantly more structured than Twitter and allows users to indicate their home address and other interests privately. Unlike Twitter, it’s hard for 20 individuals to dominate a debate. Unlike Twitter, commenters frequently volunteer detailed information about how they relate to a community — living there, shopping there, transiting. It has the context Twitter lacks. Commonplace is symbiotic with other social media platforms—Twitter or Facebook are places to where links to Commonplace debates are likely to circulate.

Commonplace in Newham

Showing users their Filter bubble

Your filter bubble, visualised.

On Twitter, factions often present themselves simultaneously as an oppressed minority and a silent majority. The ‘echo chamber’ or ‘filter bubble’ phenomena makes users feel that every right-thinking person agrees with them, and factions can build self-reinforcing logic uninterrupted by interactions with people they disagree with. Visualising the filter bubble may help burst it.

Showing users hidden communities

Are black taxis a hidden community?

As noted in the previous post, Taxi drivers are staunchly anti-LTN but tend not interact with pro-LTN accounts (with some prominent exceptions). The intensity of taxi driver activity in the anti-LTN campaign might be invisible to many pro-LTN Twitter users. Having the best picture possible of the participants and their objectives can only improve debate.

The risk of gamification

One risk is that providing statistics about debate will encourage a numbers game. Adrian Hon has made the case that social media-fueled conspiracy theories are really a game. It’s a dynamic that should not be encouraged. Tools to enable civic debate should try to avoid building targets that warring factions can compete for.

Number of interactions by pro- and anti-LTN tweets. Highlighting data like this might encourage a sense of competition.

Who owns the analysis?

Local government typically do have access to Twitter analysis tools, although the way they use them is very limited in my experience. It makes sense for borough councils to keep their ear to the ground by checking what is being said on Twitter. But it also changes the power dynamic. If one party in a debate has access to a trove of information that the other lacks, that’s not a recipe for a fair discussion. Those inside a borough council will have an information advantage over those outside. To address this, civic institutions might want to consider ways to publish what they know about social media activity.

Conclusion

Twitter, more than other platforms, can lay claim to being a ‘town square’. Tweets are public by default, anyone can interact with you, and you can interact with anyone. It’s doesn’t include everyone, but neither does any means of discussion. Whether we like it or not, a tool designed in San Fransisco in 2006 as an alternative to text messages has become the predominant means of political discussion online. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating, if at times depressing, experiment in social cooperation — we should make the most of it.

PhD on digital systems for collective action and social network analysis. jimmytidey.co.uk/blog

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