Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people around the world.
Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of media houses
Once a forum on which users could discuss the day’s news, Twitter now just as often sets the day’s agenda.
Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users known check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.
Social scientists have known for decades that the most politically active citizens are highly unrepresentative of the population as a whole. On average, citizens are more politically engaged the more affluent, educated, and powerful they are. “The heavenly chorus” of those who write letters to their local newspaper, attend PTA meetings, or ring up their MP
Until the advent of social media, decision makers were only confronted with their angriest detractors on specific occasions—at town halls, say, or on the Letters page in newspapers—for which they could mentally brace themselves. And when they faced the local teachers’ union or chamber of commerce, they were well aware that it represented a particular slice of their electorate.
Twitter is different in two key ways. Because it allows anybody to speak up, leaders of political and cultural institutions seem prone to believe that the views they encounter there are representative of the “general public.” And because so many influential people check their Twitter notifications dozens of times a day, the opinions they see there become the constant soundtrack of their life. When deciding what to think or how to act, leaders may find it harder to tune out angry professions of outrage on Twitter than the “heavenly chorus” of yore.
What’s dangerous to democracy is not the existence of a forum in which fanatics can talk to, and shout at, one another—it’s the possibility that decision makers will confuse the forum for the real world, and in so doing allow fanatics to shape real-world culture.