Our short attention spans have made space for bad political debate habits
By Janis McMath, Editor-in-Chief
Short-form content creates this need to set your political message on fire to get eyes on it.
Twitter has made short-form political content popular. There’s no denying the use of social media platforms in politics (e.g., rallying people in the name of activist causes, exposing unjust actions to large groups of people), but it’s too easy to bypass the necessary components of setting up a fair and logical argument. If one is trying to condense their political message to the average tweet length of 33 characters, omitting all the links to relevant data and the testing method used / sample size / potential shortcomings of a study for example is often necessary.
With so few characters to play with as well (Twitter’s maximum character count is 280), making sure the short message packs a punch is necessary if you’re looking for attention. Making comparisons to historical genocides is a common method social media users rely on to highlight their ideas. Short-form content creates this need to set your political message on fire to get eyes on it; but prioritizing anything but clear concise arguments in politics quickly leads to issues. False equivalencies occur because comparing your political message to something less drastic and more reasonable wouldn’t garner the same attention. It’s easy to be dishonest and commit the lie of omission when you’re trying to make your point as simple and punchy as possible. Clarifying what statements are value judgements (with phrases like “I feel that” or “it is my opinion that”) ruins the flow of a tweet and makes for clunky sentences.
And while oversimplification is a consistent issue in politics, I feel that the issue of short-form political content is especially problematic when considering that several studies state people’s attention spans are getting increasingly shorter (and social media only grows in popularity). A 2014 study by Microsoft of 2,000 Canadians showed that nearly 50 percent of Canadians reported problems concentrating—and this is statement “is higher among early tech adopters (68 percent), heavy social media users (67 percent) 18-24-year-olds (67 percent), and heavy multi-screeners (57 percent).”
The Government of Canada’s website cites studies from a website called Statistic Brain: “The average percentage of words read on a single Web page is about 28 percent; but if the Web page’s word count is under 110 words, the average percentage read is 49 percent.” And while short attention spans aren’t necessarily a negative thing (as you can just do the essential work in short periods of time, for example) when it comes to political content especially, digestible bits of information aren’t enough—but they are a very common way for political messages to be shared and circulated now. It’s human to get caught up in the emotion of a short and powerful message (and maybe that’s what people are taking advantage of), but as short-form political content becomes dominant, it is our responsibility to check when we’ve formed our opinion on irresponsibly small bits of information that was made specifically with succeeding on social media in mind.