Twitter Is Turning Us Into Political Punks

Hashtags, tweets and Facebook posts are not a substitute for real political activism.

Generic images (Thinkstock)
Generic images (Thinkstock)

How many times you tweet the name of an issue or candidate might determine who or what wins an election. But political activism is being duped into a false sense of … political activism. We’ve confused democracy with advocacy, and justifiable frustration with method and process. It’s civic illiteracy. We expect tangible social or political change, but most Americans can’t name all three branches of government and don’t know who John Roberts is.

We can get elated all we want about people voting when they could watch it all unfold from home. But do they even know the full story beyond scripted 140-character billboards that fit into a smartphone? According to an analysis by Social Media Today, you’ll see fewer likes on your Facebook page if you post messages that are longer than 140 characters; and Pew found that nearly 30 percent of the hottest YouTube videos were a minute or less.

And yet social media is essential. It holds enormous value and almost limitless community value, especially when it’s used for the common good. I use it, you use it; many in the space understand the need for it. But political social networking sites and stratagems should not be viewed as the panacea to democracy’s ills; that’s the tail leading the horse. It is one necessary screw in the larger political-action toolbox.

Hence, first we need to reassess how we’re defining political participation in the digital age and accept that it’s not on a couch or in a coffeehouse or on a keyboard. Real participation is holistic … and dirty. The real value is when you touch lives in tangible ways, when the social media message is crystallized and takes radical shape on the kitchen table.

The true performance metric for social media is when it jumps from screen to political action committee to canvassing to volunteering to people on the street en masse or crowding legislative and regulatory offices en masse. And it shouldn’t just be for one candidate, either. This is when you get lawmakers to shift from useless debt and deficit fights and focus on more important issues, like unemployment, income inequality and homelessness. That’s when we might have a shot at reducing gas, food and college tuition prices in a way that’s much more consequential than millions of WTFs, SMHs and other cute protestations in the online space.

Our voices are louder, but our attention spans are shorter. We’re celebrating an increase in youth political engagement, but few know anything about politics beyond what’s in front of them — and even that won’t get the time of day unless it’s A-listed or trending. In the constantly evolving digital space where we’re compelled to keep up with and join the latest social media thing, we’re jumping from one tweet, retweet and reply to the next before we even know what’s going on.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Sure, he tweets, too.