The limits of Twitter – trite, glib and lazy

We can expect lots of Twitter activity in the run up the UK election on May 7th. Here’s an early shot in the skirmishes:

Shocking, right? The problem is, it’s not true. Not in the literal sense of the words.

30% of nominees to the House of Lords contribute 97.9% of donations to political parties.

Literally, that means that the vast majority of money given to political parties comes from 30% of nominees to the House of Lords. A moment’s reflection told me this couldn’t be the case, so I went back to the source, a 33-page paper from Oxford University: Is there a Market for Peerages?. I also scanned reports on this paper in the press. Here’s how the Guardian put it:

That left 92 “others”, who donated between them 97.9% (£33.83m) of all the donations coming from nominees to the Lords

That’s clearer. It’s still pretty shocking. As the Daily Telegraph summarizes: 92 nominees to the Lords had effectively bought their way in. (Got the cash? Interested? Best bet is the Tories, accounting for almost half the 92 nominees.) However, the point is also that this is not all money donated to political parties. The 97.9% only refers to the share of money donated from among those nominated to the Lords.

The problem for Twitter is this: the Guardian’s phrasing may be clearer, but it’s 5 words too long, and a little too complex. What to do? Cut. Never mind the accuracy, feel the brevity.

This is why I’ve been using Twitter less recently than I did in the past – it’s just a little too noisy and a little too inaccurate.

To be precise: there is always noise, but the noise to signal ratio seems to have increased significantly over the past year. Also, among the noise is too much of the glib and the trite. The glib includes motivational quotes that irritate more than they motivate. The trite manipulates the truth to lazily present an inaccurate picture of it, which is what @Election_HUB seems to have done with this fact about buying peerages.

And of course at the intersection of the glib and the trite is the misquote. Twitter’s favourite is probably this:

In the 9 hours since midnight today, this has been repeated and amplified 20 times. It’s an admirable sentiment, but as Brian Morton pointed out in the New York Times in 2011, Gandhi didn’t say it. If you care about accuracy, there’s no excuse for not discovering that when doing your fact checking … unless of course you don’t care about accuracy and you don’t do any fact checking.

I do hope that I’m wrong about this. I would love Twitter to be a friendly exchange of useful information, banter and conversation, and indeed, I continue to read interesting, sometimes challenging, Tweets from the more thoughtful people I follow.

However, lately Twitter seems to have become more of a haven for the lazy and the inaccurate, not to mention the hateful. I hope that in the run up the UK election we’ll manage to have some better informed debate than this. I somehow doubt we will.

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2 responses to “The limits of Twitter – trite, glib and lazy

  1. Pingback: The Ten Commandments of Rational Debate | Lost and Desperate

  2. Ryan Tracey

    Ah yes, the trite, the glib and the lazy all come out of the woodwork in the lead up to an election!

    I ruminated over politics on Twitter some time ago (“I stand corrected” http://wp.me/pf1R0-143 ), but I’m afraid to say that the sanctimonious grand standing appears to have gotten WORSE since then.

    I have concluded that, for many, Twitter is just another channel to force feed your own point of view to others, and if they wilfully misrepresent their enemies in other forums, they might as well do it on this one too.

    So I’ve started to unfollow people more frequently without qualms. The mute function comes in handy too 🙂

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