SCOTUS rulings on DOMA, Civil Rights show that Twitter moves politics only so far

OK, so some might say my rosy take on Twitter’s power to accelerate social change went a little too far.

Some, like Sherry Turkle, for instance. She’s the author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” and an MIT professor who has been studying the role of technology in our lives for decades. She didn’t entirely disagree with my premise that Twitter can fuel social change on divisive issues, like same-sex marriage.

But she said my example  — the transformation of public opinion on gay marriage — was only one example from the U.S. Supreme Court’s flurry of decisions this week.

Turkle pointed to the court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act and asked: Where was the power of Twitter in that case?

“I would tell the story, which is the true story,  about how social media has absolutely been a part of making this happen, because it wouldn’t be true to not say this,” Turkle says, speaking of social media’s effect on the court’s ruling on DOMA and Proposition 8. “On the other hand, if the political forces are not aligned, social media is not enough.”

To take another example, Turkle said, look at what happened in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre of 26 school children and teachers: Pretty much nothing.

The horror lit up social media, with many calling for big changes to curtail our gun culture. And yet, Congress crumbled under immense pressure from powerful and wealthy forces like the National Rifle Association.

“I think it’s easy to look at the case you want to look at to prove that social media is omnipotent,” Turkle said.

The issue is of particular interest to Turkle, who is working on a new book that looks at reclaiming real conversations (not Twitter talk) about politics, social life and education.

I don’t disagree with the distinction Turkle draws among gay-rights issues and the debate over voting rights  (can you believe we’re still debating voting rights?) and gun control.

I just think social media has played a particularly prominent role in the shifting of American’s views on gay and lesbian relationships and same-sex marriage.

In some ways the notion was crystallized in a conversation I had with Bay Area Web developer Estelle Weyl, who married her girlfriend in 2008 and tweeted first thing Wednesday that she and her spouse could now file a joint tax return.

“I’ll be filing my taxes for 2012 as “married”, and lots of other benefits too. #DOMA just went down! I am now “married,” not “gay married”

Weyl told me how she got up early on decision day to make sure she had her iPad fired up and was on Twitter to watch the news roll in — and to express herself.

“I wanted to know right away,” she said, “and I knew Twitter would be the place. I knew that someone in my stream would tell me by 7 a.m.”

Which sounds bad for my business, newspaper/news website, except that she also explained that she realizes mainstream media sometimes posts later because they need to take the time to make sure they get it right. And yes, she does read the comprehensive coverage when it’s available.

Speaking of getting it right, Elizabeth Drescher, a Santa Clara University lecturer, who I spoke to for my column, made a point worth noting. While she had no doubt social media helped fuel the changing attitudes on gay marriage in America, she pointed out that those looking for the pulse of the public need to look beyond Twitter.

“The caution is, however, that the Twitter demographic is not exactly a national demographic,” she says.

In general Twitter tends to run younger, more male, probably higher income than the population at large. But there is no question there is something raw and real about the emotions, thoughts and arguments that pop up as Tweets. (Especially if you toss out the Twitter trolls who post for pay.)

“I don’t have a spreadsheet or any kind of empirical research on this,” she says, “but my sense is that there is a general assumption that Twitter, for example, captures some kind of spontaneous sensus fidelium, the mood of the zeitgeist of the nation, and sometimes the world, on a particular issue.”

And whatever the demographic, Twitter certainly does provide a cross-section of diverse interests. For instance, on the day the Supreme Court published it’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 — perhaps the most monumentous day in the history of the gay-rights movement — Drescher knew she would see a fire hose of tweets bearing the hashtags SCOTUS, DOMA and PROP8 and marriageequity.

“All those were there, but Paula Deen was still trending,” she says, speculating that chef Deen must have figured the spotlight would be elsewhere on Wednesday. “That woman can’t catch a break.”

Welcome to the new town square.

 

 

 

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