During the press conference in February 2011, when the government announced it would introduce a carbon tax, Julia Gillard said: "But can I make it very clear that in the debate that will ensue I am not intending to take a backwards step." When she said this, she was referring to the debate with her political opponents. But what did this say about her willingness to engage in a debate with stakeholders and citizens? Was she also not prepared to listen to them?
Although Julia Gillard was talking about a "national conversation," it did not become clear where such a conversation would take place and how citizens could get involved. It was difficult to see how the government or the Opposition were really engaging with the public. We saw press conferences, publicity stunts, protest marches and speeches. However, discussions about the merits of the policy seemed absent. Or did they take place somewhere else?
Richard Stanton argued in ON LINE opinion that citizens were talking with each other about the carbon tax on Twitter. Although I agree that Twitter has the potential to accommodate public debate, I would also argue that it has its own restrictions.
The first one would be that Twitter has its own etiquette and language. It takes some investment in time and effort before the right skills have been gained, to fully participate in the different conversations that are going on on Twitter. It is the new cyber elite that feels most confident in the Twitter-world and that knows how to get the best results out of its participation.
The different forums might also be less open to minority opinions. Recent research has shown that, even on online discussion forums, the perceived online opinion and the majority opinion in the online forum influence the message posting behaviour. People are less inclined to post their opinion if it is not in line with that of others on that forum.
Secondly, there is a general impression that one of the biggest attributes of Twitter is that it gives a forum to people who were previously shut out of the debate. Research performed by Pew Internet shows that groups who are generally less powerful, are very capable in connecting with sites like Twitter to keep informed and to have their opinions heard.
However, we have to consider that a Twitter account does not necessarily equal participation in debates about public policy. The 20 most followed Twitter users (with the exception of Barack Obama) are musicians, actors and television celebrities. And the most popular topics on any given day rarely have a connection with policy matters.
Furthermore, in discussions about policy matters, a significant number of tweets come from media organisations, politicians, the private accounts of mainstream journalists or organisations that are stakeholders in the debate. They could have been participating in the debate anyway, even without Twitter.
Finally, the element that is so specific to Twitter, the fact that each message or tweet cannot contain more than 140 characters, creates certain constraints to dialogues and discussions. Some people have argued that it is just not possible to have a meaningful discussion in 140 characters. One of the most famous critics of Twitter is Noam Chomsky who has said that, “it is not a medium of serious interchange.”
In order to say anything about the Twitter conversation about the carbon tax, I have made an analysis of the #carbontax. The most striking finding would be that the advocates and opponents seem to be having their own discussions. Although most tweets of the opponents of the tax are about the science behind climate change, only 6% of the tweets of the advocates are about this aspect of the policy.
The advocates of the tax used the hashtag mainly to talk about the tactics of the opponents (16%) or to share information (13%). The huge discrepancy between the arguments of both sides indicates that the hashtag did not generate a real debate. This is further supported by the fact that almost 75% of all tweets on the #carbontax are "singletons;" statements that are not addressed to anyone nor in reply to someone.
The fact that the hashtag did not generate a real debate, could be due to the fact that Twitter itself does not appear to be set up to bring dissenting opinions together. Twitter is all about finding and communicating with people with similar ideals and opinions; about following who you like.
It is also very well possible that the carbon tax was just too complex for a discussion on Twitter. Whatever the reason, it does have significant consequences if we look at the potential of the debate. As the hashtag has not been able to come up with some sort of consensus, it can be easily ignored by the traditional elites. Even if they would want to include the Twitter conversations in their positions, how would they be able to do so? What would be the outcome of thousands of tweets?
If people on certain hashtags truly want to be able to influence policy, they have to start engaging with other Twitter users.