Tweet, tweet do not retweet: The role of Twitter in public discussions


Twitter is a popular social networking and microblogging platform. It allows users to engage in discussion of a wide range of topics through the use of hashtags. The hashtag feature categorizes the platform’s content, thereby allowing researchers to analyze online public discussions. It is important to recognize that Twitter discussions do not emerge in a vacuum. Quan-Haase and Sloan (2017, p. 3) emphasize the importance of events within the broader, offline social context, in shaping the interactions and engagements that occur on social media. In particular, they highlight the ‘historical, social, political and economic’ contexts present at the time. Twitter debates may be viewed as virtual responses to real social events. Users' responses are also determined, in part, by Twitter's technical features. These features include communicative practices such as tweets, retweets, likes, comments and hashtags.

Focusing on Dahlgren’s (1995; 2005a; 2005b) three-dimensional framework of the public sphere, this paper analyzes the role of Twitter in online public discussions across three distinct aspects: structural, representational and interactional. The quantitative data consists of 18,500 tweets of six specific hashtags relating to three case studies. The first case relates to a large forest fire in Greece that occurred in the summer of 2018, and the second case to a political crisis between Turkey and the United States (US) that surfaced in 2017 and deepened in 2018. The third case is about a lesbian relationship between two Turkish women.

The paper adopts two methods of analysis: qualitative content analysis and social network analysis. Three key insights are evident. First, examining Twitter in the structural dimension demonstrates that it is a relatively inclusive platform for online public discussions. Second, analyzing Twitter through the representational dimension reveals that the content users produce does not make any contribution to online public discussions on this platform. Lastly, analyzing Twitter within the interactional dimension reveals that the retweet feature confines, rather than expands, online public discussions. The approach and conclusions presented in this paper allow us to better understand the role of Twitter in online public discussions.