02/01/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Reflecting on Twitter and Its Implications for Elections and Democracy

The January after a presidential election year is a great time for academics like me to reflect on the long road to the White House. What I am most amazed by, every four years, is how much the American media landscape -- and as a result, the electorate -- change. In 1996, candidate websites were essentially "brochureware" -- pamphlets and slogans transformed from print fliers to simple, static pages. Only 20 million Americans had access to the Web, and those who did spent an average of 30 minutes online a month.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the online micro-blogging site Twitter has half a billion users and the president has more than 26 million followers. Facebook has over a billion monthly users, and 50 percent of Americans report getting their news digitally -- more than radio or newspapers. Although TV remains the top news source, the number of Americans watching traditional nightly news continues to decline, with only 27 percent reporting they regularly view those programs. (Compare that to 42 percent in 1996.) We are also seeing more devices, more multitasking, and -- for many mobile technology users -- more time spent with the news. In fact, a recent Pew report showed that 31 percent of news users said they spend more time with news since getting a tablet. And for people who use both a tablet and a smartphone, the time spent with news is double having one device alone. All of this suggests a sea change in not only how citizens consume news, but how Americans engage with politics in this new media landscape.

We saw clear evidence of how media have changed us -- and how we have changed media -- in the 2012 election. Twitter introduced an Election Index using sentiment analysis to show us which candidates fared better in terms of how Twitter users were discussing them, day by day. We also learned that Barack Obama had more Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and YouTube video views than his opponent, Mitt Romney. But can such numbers effectively predict the vote? What exactly do they mean? Can tweets be used to measure public opinion? What are the effects of using Twitter as a source of news? These are some of the questions driving many scholars right now. What I have seen at recent academic conferences and in discussions with colleagues and students is that Twitter and other social networking sites can not only serve as a forum expressing and gauging opinion, but as a tool for finding and aggregating opinions to make sense of both elite and citizen voices. In this sense, they can serve as a representation (albeit a murky one) of public opinion.

Yet this type of research brings up privacy issues associated with collecting data. While tweets are public for the most part -- of course there are privacy settings that prevent some posts from being public -- should they be used to record and describe individuals' political leanings and positions? If a person tweets that they hate the latest Obama policy initiative, but they follow Obama, what does that mean? It is quite possible that tweets are like those things you say at a party that you don't intend to be on your public record. Yet, as evidenced in several studies I have reviewed, many Twitter users willingly post such information publicly. If we aggregate these opinions, are they an accurate portrayal of public opinion? Are these Twitter users different from other Americans? If a tweet falls in the forest and no one is around to read it, does it matter?

Clearly there are a lot of questions about Twitter's impact. But how we even define Twitter is as yet unclear. Whether tweets are classified as public opinion or news suggests vastly different implications for democracy -- is Twitter a public sphere, representing citizen voices, or is it simply an extension of political and corporate hegemony? Or some combination of these? Are tweets changing us, or are we changing democracy -- one tweet at a time? As Marshall McLuhan, the twentieth-century media scholar and critic, argued, media and technology -- like Twitter -- can become extensions of our physical, psychological, and social selves. In this sense, Twitter can serve to extend our voices, our understanding of reality, and perhaps create a shared consciousness among citizens. And if it doesn't, at least there's always celebrity news to keep us entertained.