Why Twitter Is Bad for Our Politics and Democracy

From a column by Damon Linker on theweek.com headlined “What Twitter tells us about human nature”:

Twitter is really important for understanding our present political and cultural moment, and it’s really bad for American democracy.

Three-and-a-half years into a political era launched and sustained in large part by the social media platform, these two (related) views are indisputable. But pinpointing precisely what is so politically and culturally pernicious about Twitter can be challenge, in part because its awfulness has multiple dimensions.

There is, to begin with, its impulsive, hyperbolic, and viral character, often rewarding people with a nearly instantaneous, enormous global audience for making sweeping or extreme pronouncements on events — “that big explosion in Beirut was definitely a nuclear weapon!” — in a spirit of uninformed, visceral reaction. That makes Twitter one of the greatest mechanisms ever devised for spreading conspiracies and misinformation. It also makes it one of the greatest mechanisms ever devised for spreading disinformation — intentionally misleading and false claims spread by bad actors to sow mayhem and confusion for a variety of malicious aims.

Then there is Twitter’s facility for encouraging tribalism or what is often called the “siloing” of information. People can and do curate their feeds to ensure they hear and interact only with ideas and arguments that reinforce what they already believe, and dismiss anything that might prompt them to question it. Though for many the term “dismiss” is too passive. That’s because they also seek out the most extreme versions of ideas and ideologies they detest in order to reinforce the prejudices that prevail within their own meticulously curated digital world. They band together with allies and then go in search of monsters to destroy.

But what if the causality runs just as much in the other direction — not from tribalism to ideological conflict, but the reverse? What if certain people, at least, are motivated at bottom by a craving for conflict, and they form or join together with groups of the like-minded as a byproduct of that agonistic instinct? In that case, Twitter would have to be understood as an engine of antagonism, augmenting and amplifying a deeply ingrained human predilection for discord and dispute, quite apart from the substance of what anyone is fighting about at any given time.

The obvious example is the figure of Donald Trump, whose every combative, insulting tweet becomes an occasion for his critics on the left, center-left, and center-right to point and shout and hurl invective — and for his abundant defenders on the right to scream in response, “Aw, look at the poor libtards driven mad by the Bad Orange Man and their Trump Derangement Syndrome!”. . .

It would be one thing if there were any evidence that Twitter was functioning as John Stuart Mill’s ideal of a marketplace of ideas in which false claims and arguments were systematically exposed, refuted, and dispelled and true ones verified, promoted, and spread. But that’s not at all how Twitter works. It just prizes conflict, with both sides usually having ample ammunition and support to fuel its side of the battle until the field of combat moves on to the next skirmish.

In this respect, Twitter differs in important respects from Facebook. Neither social media platform encourages anything resembling the liberal ideal of a healthy and vibrant public square of free-flowing, illuminating deliberation and debate among free and equal citizens. Instead the two platforms enact an anti-liberal division of labor, with Facebook encouraging self-reinforcing feedback loops among the like-minded and Twitter facilitating rancorous discord and verbal violence. . . .

Whether this persists and builds or wanes and recedes after the 2020 election remains to be seen. But regardless, so long as so many of us remain active on Twitter, we will be presented with endless temptations and opportunities to fight. And in so doing, we’ll be developing intellectual and moral habits more common and suitable to the battlefield than the voting booth. That’s not something likely to end well.

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