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Political Discourse and Identity inside Twitter: a Power of Influence

Twitter was created in 2006, and today it already has around 220 million users worldwide. Since its creation, this social network has been among the top ten most used applications around the globe, with particularly political application when referring to express an opinion or an identity, which might have consequences among the rest of users. In this sense, the questions about what happens inside Twitter can be many, about whether using Twitter as a virtual platform to express our political identity, what these political speeches are made of, or if they have effects or consequences for the social public. Due to the fact that it represents a global social network, this article will not focus on any specific socio-cultural or national framework but on the study of the discourses produced by common users, with the ultimate aim of discovering the identity and the political discourses behind this social network. Finally, some reflections regarding the moral validity and the consequences of the speeches issued on this platform will be delivered.


Firstly, it is essential to outline the definition of discourse, being one of the most profound expositors of this the french philosopher Michael Foucault (1973 [1970]), who states that discourse is a combination of statements that depend on the same formation system. Therefore, this system organises the knowledge that structures the constitution of social relations, which, in turn, works as rules through the collective understanding of discursive logic and the acceptance of discourse as a social fact. Discursive formations are not transformed completely in their structure when they give way to the speeches; inside them there are gaps, limits, cuts that are not a uniform whole but a dispersion of statements. The discourse is formed through the discursive system and gains power in the subject who turns it into an object of desire, then desire and power insert it into the “will to truth”, which controls, selects and redistributes the discursive production. Thus, discourses are produced by effects of power within a social order, and this power prescribes particular rules and categories that define the criteria to legitimise knowledge and truth within the discursive order (Foucault, 1973 [1970]). In this sense, any form of discourse is loaded with meaning and intention, with the ultimate aim of generating standardisation and homogenisation through the representation of an epistemic reality. Definitely, social networks allow practically anyone in the world the possibility of generating a discourse and making it public, but is it possible for the regular internet users to create and broadcast without abiding by this normalising intention? There is where it is compelling to consider the case of Twitter.


Figure 1: Illustration of a demonstration with Twitter's signs (n.d.)


A communication that shapes thought?


As the sociolinguistic from Georgetown University Anna De Fina (2018) rightly mentions in her article Discourse and Identity, we use language not only to represent who we are or to identify others but also to classify and judge people; to align ourselves with them by pointing out our similarities or to distance ourselves by pointing out our differences. Thus, language and discourse are essential pieces in the construction of identities. In this sense, Twitter is a medium that manages to centralise the opinions and discourses of different actors in society, from the common person to the public figure (Echevarría, 2012). There are already empirical studies that show that the impact of this social network as a communication resource remains high and represents a new and growing trend in the promotion of "public opinion" (Criado and García, 2012). It is clear that the emergence of technology and social networks has led to a transformation in the linguistic model and in the way information is received and processed, and Twitter is not far behind. The messages on this social network propose a new system of communicative interaction since, unlike other social networks, this one requires synthesis, clarity and punctuality in the writing of the text (Van Dijk, 1993). The relevance of this type of discourse lies in the communicative intention based on the production and articulation of a performance, a mise-en-scène that is traversed by a number of reasons, among others, as to inform, denounce, criticise, attack, convince and persuade. (Arrieta and Smith, 2018).


In the same vein, it cannot be overlooked the limitation of the character's rule, as this implies an obligation to be selective and concise in the form of communication, as well as an impediment to personal cognitive development. This fact generates an effect of the brevity of messages, but at the same time of immediacy and constancy, as those who do not publish tweets minute by minute are at a disadvantage compared to those who do (Echevarría, 2012). In turn, the professor of political science and international relations Mariam Martínez-Bascunan (2015) raises the question of whether the Twitter format represents an era or a model of society: Twitter is characterised by a form of communication in which people think in 140 characters, reflective of a lack of individual thought according to Fairclough's insights —one of the founders of critical discourse analysis as applied to sociolinguistics—, and that would lead us to the reification of opinion as another effect of Twitter, which freezes states of ideas and makes it difficult for dissenting views to emerge (Fairclough, 1992).


Figure 2: A bird representing Twitter's framing of the public discourse, illustration (n.d.)


An agreed censorship


Unlike other social networks which have more strict rules regarding the content that could be published, such as Tumbrl —like the 2018 purge, which generally banned “sexual” images and content, or the censorship of certain words to prevent “harmful behaviour”, such as “bitch” or “homo” (Pilipets and Paasonen, 2020)— or Instagram —like the highly controversial policy of censorship of anatomical attributes, which —along with other factors— gave rise to the "free the nipple" movement in 2014 (Stauffer, 2016)—, Twitter is dominated by a clear political discourse (Garimella & Weber, 2017) due to the fact that barriers to the free circulation of information and ideas are eliminated (Martínez-Bascunan, 2015). It represents an instrument that shapes the opinion of the majority and exerts a "public force", which influences above all the formation of the opinion that ends up being dominant or hegemonic. In this sense, despite the fact that Twitter is an instrument that does not lead to reflection but rather to mobilisation —since it pays more attention to stimulation and to get an immediate reaction or response— (Vallespín, 2012), it is true that it has a significant influence on the exercise of thought. Twitter's own discourse is also characterised by immediacy in terms of its generation, dissemination, influence, and transfer, properties that facilitate the construction of a "herd effect" when an issue jumps into the cyber arena.


Some of the political theorists such as Sennett (1980) or Spitz (1957), who have studied the effect of the tyranny of the majority in Tocqueville, analyse the process by which the inquisitorial crushing of individual judgement is produced by the action of group dogmatism, breaking the emergence of dissenting opinions (Martínez-Bascunan, 2015), something that can be easily seen on Twitter (Garimella & Weber, 2017) by for instance massively rejecting or making certain opinions invisible. In this sense, intellectual violence could be exercised, which would open the doors to a new form of censorship, as to the emergence of opinions that do not adjust to those that are marked by the amplifying effect of Twitter or even to the topics that are dealt with on the network on a daily basis. It is true that at first glance, social networks can be presented as a platform for freedom of expression and give voice to people of any type of origin; however, censorship finds a place to emerge from precisely the same users, favoring certain opinions, giving them light and clothing, and stoning others with which the majority disagrees. Although it seems a difficult task, there are still certain ways to escape this censorship, such as the anonymous user resource or simply self-censorship by having the option to follow or block according to one's own line of thought. Despite this, naturally, Twitter has more friendly speeches than these, where you can find enriching and warm conversations, and feel part of a community from anywhere in the world, and even anonymously (Yoo et al., 2014). It is a platform where you can find very valuable and up-to-date information in very little time and effort, and even public figures officially announce their statements. We unfollow and follow people according to our own values, principles, and opinions, just like life itself. Indeed, this process does not occur only with Twitter, in the face of a new ethereal, fleeting, and immediate virtual world; it seems that as new and diverse social networks are created, we need to register into an account and express our identity in each one in a complementary way. (Shu et al., 2017). For example, users often use Instagram to show a visual, physical, or corporeal identity, Linkedin to reflect a work identity, and Twitter to show a political identity (Manago, 2015).


Figure 3: Ownership of Twitter Elon Musk, illustration (n.d.)


One explanation for this whole process can be found in what Evgeny Morozov (2012:13), a researcher and critic of the social and political models deriving from the effects of Big Data, defines as "the Google doctrine", an enthusiastic faith in the liberating power of technology that has had a decisive influence on the development of a vision about the revolutionary potential internet has, and which could have engendered a new form of “tyranny of the majority”. The meaning of this concept mapped out by Tocqueville refers to the pressure that a social group can exert on society as a whole, with three consequences: the weakening of independence of judgement, the reduction of society's critical capacity, and the imposition of subtle censorship (Tocqueville ([1835], 2009 cited by Martínez-Bascunan, 2015). As has already been seen, this "tyrannical social group" can be applied to the loudest group on the Twitter platform: by weakening the independence of judgment when centralising particular opinions and discourses, by reducing the critical capacity of society due to the limitation of language development and the need for speed and by establishing a censorship that is not only subtle but agreed upon and with its corresponding punishment — which can lead into rejection or the loss of followers, essential to be able to belong to that majority of voices that are more listened to.


Conclusions


One of the consequences that can be drawn from this is that the interaction of discourses on the web provokes an exchange in which opinions are taken as if they were things or attributes that are attached to one's own identity. Indeed, this is a process that also occurs in real life, yet social networks and Twitter are used in particular when wanting to express an opinion linked to our identity in a brief, immediate, public, and visceral way, as if taking a load off our shoulders by doing so (Shu et al., 2017). This forms a practice by which today's society feels the need to constantly expose its own identity (Van Dijk, 2006) using social networks as a flattering channel, but at the same time using their own's identity as a commercial object with which this society can perform exchange or business operations. In this sense, social networks would function as a reflection of "real" life, making use of each one depending on the expression that we want to reflect at a given moment —for example, Twitter to express our political identity, or Instagram to reflect our more visible, physical or material identity— (Shu et al., 2017). This phenomenon would be related to what Vallespín (2012) calls "narcissism of opinion". Narcissism reveals a shared structure that filters the way we reason, or rather, give our opinion, which is usually based on "making noise" (Martínez-Bascunan, 2015). The Twitter format allows us to carry out this narcissistic exercise of sending our own message to the network, of interacting with great media personalities and relevant voices on this supposedly equal basis (Ravishankar, 2018). Unlike other platforms, such as Instagram, which are based more on audiovisual content, on Twitter, short and quick messages often generate simplified, thoughtless and visceral comments, which leads to polarisation and confrontation (Bigas, 2020).


Figure 4: Twitter's bird as a political speaker, illustration (n.d.)


This particular political use of Twitter can be explained since the expression of a political opinion is usually reflected with words instead of images, coupled with the fact that relevant political figures also use Twitter to communicate, to which other users can respond or intervene (Echevarría, 2012). Are all discourses free and valid? The supposed democratisation of discourses would have made the filter for discerning those that may have relevance or validity in terms of reasonableness or legitimacy disappear. The effect of this intellectual violence on the Internet would be like a market of competing discourses, where the most emotional or those who strategically and instrumentally control the specific formats and techniques of the networks in use would end up imposing themselves (Martínez-Bascunan, 2015). Whether we like it or not, much of the discourse in the Twitter social network would have narcissistic, tyrannical, intransigent and inquisitorial characteristics, in which any type of manifestation different from that of the "herd" is rejected. In this sense, when returning to De Fina's (2018) initial assertion, these discourses could be producing a series of identities with similar characteristics and tending towards homogeneity of tastes, opinions and thought, due to the censorship and self-censorship that sets the guidelines for this social network: opinions that follow a certain line of thought are supported and those that do not are rejected, together with the fact that we have the ability to follow, unfollow or even block whoever think different.


Finally, it was seen how Twitter limits our ability to express and think, both in form and substance. Twitter's own communication policies take care of the form by limiting characters, for example. It is true that the thread policy has recently been introduced, consisting of adding secondary messages to the main one in order to create a kind of conversation with oneself. However, it seems this is not enough or has not had the expected success, and the option of increasing the number of characters up to 4,000 is now being considered (Reimann, 2023). In the same way, Twitter users also define the way in which to express themselves, as polarised and confronting opinion groups emerge, which pay more attention to stimuli and specific facts than to context and reflection, which intensifies with the political charge that characterises it (Martínez-Bascunan, 2015). As for the substance, there is the level of censorship also imposed by users themselves, who will not hesitate to pepper or simply make invisible anyone who does not follow the established patterns of expression, consisting of a single particular line of thought without whites or blacks, for example by insulting or denying all kinds of comments that do not suit their perspective. All of this leads Twitter users to merely reproduce and repeat a homogeneous and hegemonic discourse with hardly any thoughtful analysis, and if this occurs, it is the users themselves who are in charge of preventing, punishing, or ignoring it. It represents a system where no kind of traditional authority is needed, in which the same users can perceive themselves as defenders of, thinkers, intellectuals or guardians, to police officers, judges, experts or executioners. Unlike other social networks, there is indeed space for the issuance of a political discourse as an expression of identity, but these manifestations are quickly redirected or censored by other users if they detect that they do not conform to the opinion of the majority, limiting the independence of own judgment and reducing the critical capacity of society.

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