Social media has been compared to a public square so often that it has become cliché. Members of Congress, academics, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey have all called social media the modern “public square.” The idea is even at the heart of Elon Musk‘s bid for Twitter: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” the acquisition announcement reads, “and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Are they right? Is social media a place where everyone comes together to see what’s happening and talk about today’s important ideas?
For the past several years, our organization has been tracking how voters feel about today’s most important policy issues around tech platforms, social media, and free speech online. The data points to similarities between social media and a very different type of public space: a coliseum.
Nearly two-thirds of all voters we polled—62 percent—agree that social media platforms are the primary channel by which important public policy conversions take place. This shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, much of our political agenda is driven by online discourse and the news that breaks there.
But the ideal of a public square is more than just a place where the political elite come to talk; it’s a space where all people come to listen and can have a say. This is where social media fails as a public square. In our recent poll, only 8 percent of voters completely agreed that social media is the primary channel for sharing their political beliefs with others. Only 16 percent even somewhat agreed. This means that for 76 percent of Americans, social media is not where they share political ideas. In fact, only 39 percent of Americans feel comfortable sharing their politics online. Even more important, over two-thirds—68 percent—actively avoid political conversations online. Most political conversations arise in casual settings with informal acquaintances.
What this means is that far from a public square, social media is largely a spectator sport when it comes to sharing political views. When politics does come up, people come to watch others duke it out, while working hard to avoid participating.
Public squares have always been styled as places where the general public would gather to share and exchange ideas, discuss politics, and engage in debate. This is not what is happening online. The Pew Research Center‘s survey of social media users found that only 9 percent of those online say they often discuss, comment, or post about politics. Most people are uncomfortable discussing politics, including in online arenas.
Both these polls add depth to a well-understood trend: People live a lot of their lives online—yet they still rarely engage in politics there. Only the politically active are going online to talk politics. The rest of us are going there to watch, like spectators at a coliseum.
That’s what Twitter is: a platform for watching the blood sport of political debate in 2022. Twitter is where our modern political teams—former presidents, journalists, advocates, politicians, and scholars—gather to engage in political skirmishes. It is where the politics of the chronically online are played out.
And it’s where America goes to watch but not engage. It’s like we’re in a coliseum stand, cheering (however silently) while the two sides line up and try to beat each other.
Maybe it is best to stop thinking about Twitter and other platforms as digital public squares. Calls for “free speech” aren’t about advancing a civil society online. When it comes to politics, social media platforms are modern digital coliseums. Our political leaders—the athletes—aren’t as interested in civil liberties as they are working the rules to win the game.