Twitter and politics: The Penrith Debate points to the future

Among 1,200 tweets with the #penrithdebate tag, the most retweeted comment of the day came not from a politician but from a journalist who has long been familiar with the medium, Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand used the conventions of his craft to turn the debate into an ironic news headline “EXCLUSIVE: TWITTER DEBATE CONFUSED, NONSENSICAL AND UNPRODUCTIVE; PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF NSW POLITICS” At least 41 others liked Hildebrand’s contribution enough to send it on to their followers too (photo: ABC)

Hildebrand’s joke was funny because of the metaphor of the Twitter debate standing in for the entire panoply of governance in NSW. But Hildebrand as a Sydney based News Limited reporter is part of the problem. If as one observer noted, “Twitter is too short, and with a lot of people tweeting to participate in the debate means that information just flys [sic] by without being properly looked and picked apart” there is no reason for journalists not to pick through the bones of the debate after the fact.The Penrith Debate purported to be an exchange of ideas between three NSW political leaders using Twitter for 30 minutes ahead of a state by-election in Penrith on the weekend. Under the moderation of TV journalist Kevin Wilde, Premier Kristina Keneally, Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell and Greens leader Lee Rhiannon used the 140-character format to debate ideas, issues and policies. Keneally made grandiose claims about the possibilities: “Twitter flattens democratic debate. Enlivens democracy. A great tool for discussion, info exchange.”

But Twitter does not make for great theatre. Given its shortcomings for multi-pronged conversation, the debate became more geek gimmickry than flush of oratory. Tech and social commentator Stilgherrian picked up on this calling it “confusing and pointless” and said Twitter was “completely the wrong medium for a debate.” Stil made the point the three Twitter streams of the debate’s participants were almost like watching three TV stations. But he said, a filtered stream of the hashtag limited to the participants was available on the day.

Twitter may be flawed but we forget it is just one piece of the communication puzzle. Keneally used her iphone to make her Tweets while Rhiannon used Tweetdeck. Others used a bewildering array of tools that sit on top of Twitter to make their points. The stream is being tamed as people find uses for the vast amount of data it consumes. And the debate, though badly executed, contained the germ of an old and timeless ideal: public accountability.

The Dutch are masters of public accountability and they held several Twitter debates a couple of weeks ago in the lead-up to national elections. The Netherlands went further than NSW with at least three party leaders, two minister and three other MPs taking part. The commentary from Dutch-based John Tyler at HagueGuy showed a massive audience for this kind of interaction regardless of how chaotic the rapid fire exchanges got. While it was easy to get confused, the debates have added a vast amount of information for HagueGuy and Hildebrand to work with when critiquing politicians.

It is too easy to overlook just how exciting this kind of interactivity is. Working at its best, the Twitterati operates like synapses, a hivemind capable of massive thought and concerted action despite character limits, inherent anarchy, spamming, non sequiturs and juvenile humour. Forced to be brief, complex words and sentences are pared down to absolute essentials and often chiselled into remarkably dense thought. We didn’t see much of that today but there will be other opportunities.

More of these debates will be conducted in the trust economy of social media. Politicians will have to learn a new skill: how to become adept at ceding control. Twitter debates won’t decide the election, but with the right tools and the right filters, they can add to the general wellbeing of the body politic by getting tight messages out to an engaged audience.

Greens participant Lee Rhiannon thought the debate was a success. “There would have been more people following this debate on line than would fit into many local town halls,” she wrote “I am not saying these online events should replace public meetings but there is a place for online debates in the political landscape and we should encourage its development.”

But we should not get too carried away; Rhiannon and the rest did what politicians do in any other debate on any other media. They spoke to their own themes and ignored pointed replies. It is politics, after all. It is up to us to go through the entrails to make sense of it.

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