Is This What Politics Has Come To?

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Let’s get one thing straight first. The people who complain incessantly about the "24-hour news cycle" are the same people who, like me, are most likely to be riveted by a social media experiment like a Twitter debate.

Today’s Twitter debate between New South Wales politicians Kristina Keneally, Barry O’Farrell  and Lee Rhiannon might not have swayed the masses, but it certainly offered an insight into an emerging kind of politics.

I quickly found the best way to follow the debate was to follow two streams at once: the broader #penrithdebate hashtag and the filtered stream which displayed only the tweets of the three leaders and moderator Kevin Wilde.

The end result was nothing if not unfiltered. Indeed, it was almost completely incoherent, as Wilde struggled to provide any semblance of moderation and the leaders alternatively answered random tweeted questions or fired campaign pledges into the ether.

The potential positives for this new style of debate are immediately evident in terms of engagement and participation. Following the #penrithdebate hashtag was like leaping into the warm bath of democracy: raucous and disorderly, but also robust and diverse. Ill-considered quips and confected outrage jostled happily with witty puns and even the occasional balanced and intelligent remark.

But the disadvantages of such a chaotic medium were just as apparent. Watching the tweets tumble down my screen, I was struck by the sheer avalanche of unmoderated information that Twitter makes available. Even in this age of "partial continuous attention", the brevity and rapidity of Twitter is exactly the opposite of what one might hope for in an enlightened democratic dialogue. The tendency for candidates to ignore each other and simply to repeat their talking points; the morass of bathetic banter; the trolls and sock puppets: none of these show democratic debate in its best light.

On the other hand, the same criticisms have been levelled at democratic processes since the time of Pericles. Indeed, one imagines a reanimated Pericles transported into the future would not feel out of place trying to make his points amidst the dull, chaotic roar of a Twitter stream.

Why participate in the debate anyway, moderator Kevin Wilde asked at the beginning of the debate. "cos KK refused to participate in a debate organised by the Penrith Business Alliance" Barry O’Farrell fired back, in the first of several well-turned tweets.

What can we draw from this brave exercise? A few key observations offer themselves.

Firstly, Twitter offers new models for geographically distributed debate. Today’s debate did not require the leaders to assemble in one forum. Keneally was at a Penrith cafe, Rhiannon was at her electoral office, and O’Farrell was on the move. Twitter offers not so much a lack of geography as a multiplicity of geographic simultaneity. Insert your favourite new media metaphor here.

Secondly, a new medium offers a new challenge for politicians. The first televised US presidential debate in 1960 offered voters a radically new way to engage with their leaders. Listeners on radio thought Nixon won. Television viewers thought Kennedy won. Many blamed Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow for the result.

Today’s Twitter debate offers some intriguing glimpses into a future in which a quick wit and rapid touch typing skills could be just as important as good hair and an appropriately tailored suit. To my surprise, I decided that Barry O’Farrell performed best. His tweets were more direct and even betrayed the occasional flash of humour whereas Keneally seemed capable only of anodyne campaign pledges. Rhiannon seemed most at home in the medium, but also struggled to get a consistent message across.

Thirdly, the new medium will stimulate a rapid evolution in political tactics appropriate to it. Indeed, we saw a number in their nascent form today. For instance, Keneally showed her political discipline, staying on message with a series of boring — but at least clear and comprehensible — campaign talking points. Another tactic that could emerge is to flood the channel by engaging large numbers of supporters or party members to bombard the Twitter stream on a particular hashtag. Twitter also offers the opportunity for savvy politicians to simply overwhelm the debate with large numbers of tweets; unlike a live TV interview, no-one can say "I’m going to stop you there".

It may take audiences and media professionals just as long to understand and adapt to the new medium as politicians. The messy and difficult debate will look a whole lot smoother once it makes the news tonight.

Perhaps the tweet of the debate was from Daily Telegraph blogger Joe Hildebrand, who observed "Exclusive: Twitter debate confused, nonsensical and unproductive; perfect representation of NSW politics." It will take more than a few Twitter debates to sort out the mess that is state politics in New South Wales. Genuine democracy is never neat or clear-cut.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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