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Twitter & Politics: What´s the Fate of Your Follow? A Conversation with Prof. Cristian Vaccari
Natalia Ramirez, NYU Class of 2014
La Pietra Dialogues
May 8, 2013

Christian Vaccari teaches Television and Italian Democracy at New York University Florence as well as Political Communication at the University of Bologna. In the past, he has been a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford and Columbia University among other prestigious institutions. His book Digital Politics in Western Democracies: A Comparative Study will be published in Fall 2014 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Christian Vaccari and his colleague Augusto Valeriani will be presenting their paper “Follow the Leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign” at the May 10-11th, 2013 La Pietra Dialogue on Social Media and Political Participation. In the paper he discusses how Twitter is used to engage politicians and users, what a “power user” is, and what Twitter popularity means to Italian politics.

What does “Dialogue” mean to you?

"Dialogue" to me means sharing reasoned arguments with other people and engaging in those that they put forward. It is a very important word for any scholar and teacher because it signifies the value of connecting one´s knowledge to other people´s ideas, emotions, and lives.

In your opinion, is social media expanding the range of voices in political discourse, or concentrating it?

To some extent they are, especially if compared with the mass media age when the production and gatekeeping of mediated messages was a monopoly in the hands of owners, editors, and journalists. Now more people can express their voice in public space than used to be the case in the past. That being said, there is no question that the Internet and social media are environments where attention is scarce and visibility is highly concentrated, so a very select few social media users will get most people´s attention and the vast majority will get close to zero. For instance, in our research on the Twitter users who followed Italian party leaders on Twitter during the 2013 election campaign, we found that as many as 19% of those users had no followers at all, while only 0.6% had 1,000 followers or more. User engagement on Twitter was also highly concentrated: a whopping 29% of our users had never sent a single tweet since opening their account, whereas only 4% had posted more than 1,000 tweets. So, there are still very wide political inequalities in social media. However, there is still a lot of political talk and activity on Twitter by those many users that are somewhere in the middle between the inactive lower strata and the elusive elite of top users. I believe it is in that intermediate layer of users, which we call the "vital middle", that the most interesting developments may be observed. The rapid aggregation of many small-scale conversations may sometimes lead to politically relevant outcomes that could not be imagined in the mass media age.

What knowledge of social media do you think the college-age generation has to give to researchers?

Unlike television or newspapers, all digital technologies show relevant access and skills divides that favor younger generations over older ones. Technologies, applications, and their uses simply change too fast for the entire population to keep up, and younger generations are much more up-to-date on the latest innovations, fads, and fashions than older ones. Social media are important for young people´s political socialization, that is, the political ideas and habits they develop, and so it is very important to understand their role in this regard. I believe there is a lot to learn from how the college-age generation is currently using social media, which is why in my classes I encourage students to share their experiences and to integrate social media into some of our activities. One of the privileges of being a teacher is that every year you engage with a different age cohort, which brings with it all this new knowledge and helps keep us up to speed.

In your paper “Follow the leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity and among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign,” you cite the substantial growth of Twitter users during the months leading up to Election Day. What does this say about how Twitter is increasingly being used?

If you look at the ten main Italian national party leaders and you combine the number of Twitter followers they had two months prior to Election Day, the total is 1.5 million. Two months later, it was almost 2.2 million, with a 44% growth rate. This growth clearly signals that Italians were paying more attention to the campaigns, which is usually the case as the election approaches, and that they were turning to Twitter as a new useful source of political information. It must be acknowledged that this growth was probably driven mainly by the mass media, which during the last two years have "discovered" Twitter and now use it as an important part of their news-gathering routines. Politicians also take advantage of Twitter because it allows them to distribute messages to large audiences without having to rely on journalists´ intermediation, as well as enabling them to let journalists know what they are saying in a faster way than sending out press releases. All in all, however, I believe the most interesting aspects of Twitter in politics have to do with what ordinary citizens say to each other about politics, rather than what politicians tell people or journalists.

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