(David Mansdoerfer) – As I was tweeting away during the GOP presidential debate last night, I began to realize the full impact that social media – Twitter, Facebook, Google +, and LinkedIn, has had on public policy. Social media, for the most part, simplifies the public policy debate. While simple is good in some cases, public policy problems are difficult to address in 140 characters or less.
On my first day of grad school, one of the professors asked my class to define public policy. Answers varied from the study of government to learning how law affects society/the public. Generally, the responses implied that the study of public policy is extremely complicated and vague.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of public policy is the principles, often unwritten, on which social laws are based. (pretty vague and complicated huh)
Yet, what happens when public policy debates are restricted to 140 characters? Over the last couple of weeks, I have tried debating liberal activists on Twitter and Facebook. Each time, I walk away frustrated. Not because of the incompetence of my debate partner, which was usually the case, but because of how simplistic and shallow the argument/debate was.
I have partaken in hundreds of “live” debates – professional, academic, and personal. In these, it is much easier to get past the generic rhetoric and actually debate substance. On Twitter and Facebook, however, debaters tend to make two mistakes.
First, Twitter and Facebook allow people to hide behind a computer screen and anonymous screen name. This allows people to say things that they wouldn’t dare say in public. Debates become much more uncivil when you are not in direct contact with the other party. One is less likely to resort to personal attacks if there is a fear of getting popped in the nose. Additionally, it is also hard to debate when you don’t know who the other person is.
When a debate takes place in person, each party can read the others voice inflection and focus on non-verbal communication. On Twitter and Facebook, however, debate participants have only letters and words to read. This makes people more defensive and forces them to revert to idealism rather than facts. This, in turn, leads to ideals being debated rather than policy – which ends up getting people nowhere.
Second, it is incredibly difficult to keep on one issue when debating on Twitter/Facebook. Instead of debating 1 on 1 or within a small group, Twitter and Facebook are basically open forums where anyone can comment. Next time you see a political comment on Facebook with 5 or more comments, count how many of those comments actually have something to do with the topic in the original comment. You might be surprised.
Now, let me be clear, social media has an important place in public policy. Twitter and Facebook are extremely powerful resources to call people to action and keep them informed on the issues. But, when the public policy debate is relegated to only social media, ideals instead of policy end up being debated.
Most of the time, public policy debates are too complicated to be addressed in 140 characters.
(Mr. Mansdoerfer is the Director of Federal Affairs for Citizen Outreach)