“Hi, I’m Twitter, and I’ll give you near-instantaneous communication with almost any other user — basically free texting with anyone online — and let you reach a nearly-unlimited audience. In exchange, I’ll allow any lunatic in the world to send any kind of message to you, including profane, hateful, threatening, and generally unhinged; groups of lunatics may get together to ensure you’re constantly receiving vile insults and menaces for long stretches of time.” – Jim Geraghty
Facebook and Google are the two giants of the social media universe, but given that 68 million Americans are on Twitter, their power and impact cannot be denied. Moreover, because of its nature, Twitter has a uniquely poisonous effect on politics in America.
Why? Well, to begin with, being on Twitter is almost a necessity if you work in politics. Getting that cool blue “verified” checkmark is a mark of prestige and many political outlets consider the number of Twitter followers someone has to be a representation of his importance. Additionally, it is a genuine way for people in politics to connect with each other. (P.S.: Feel free to contribute to the problem by following me on Twitter at @johnhawkinsrwn.) Following each other on Twitter is a good start to a conversation at a political convention and a great way to get in touch with people on your side who may be useful to you. On top of all that, tweets are now an important source of news, and that’s true even when Donald Trump isn’t involved. Twitchy might have been at the vanguard of writing stories around Tweets, but now EVERYONE does it. For example, looking through Google News in just the last few hours we’ve had stories entitled:
State Rep. Sally Siegrist’s questionable Twitter activity
NFL Twitter reviews Drake’s ‘Scorpion’ album
Elon Musk tweets about features for a new Tesla pickup truck — and …
Rubio Mocked for Three Consecutive Days on Twitter
Reporter at The Republican resigns over false Twitter post linking …
Missouri man sues lawmaker after being blocked on Twitter
Elon Musk Is Embroiled in a Farting Unicorn Argument on Twitter
LeBron James May Become A Free Agent And Twitter Is Going Crazy …
Twitter Reactions To Justice Kennedy’s Retirement
This is not very healthy given the glib, thoughtless nature of Twitter. Is the “NRA are all murderers and should be treated like terrorists” hot take an angry liberal gives five minutes after a school shooting really representative of most liberals offline? Is some random guy who claims he’s a conservative and compares black Americans to monkeys really saying what other people think on the Right? Are groups of partisans making obnoxious comments to celebrities or politicians relevant enough to be a news story? What about bad jokes? Drunk tweeting? The responses people make after being attacked by hundreds of other people? In addition, political Twitter is all about snark, outrageous comments designed to get attention and outright trolling. In fact, saying highly inflammatory things and viciously trolling large accounts on the other side are some of the best ways to build your follower count:
Think about how this plays out. Someone on the Left or Right says something arguably inflammatory to the other side that gets attention or alternately, a partisan hashtag becomes popular. Then hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people decide to comment. The people on the other side are incentivized to be as nasty as possible and they will comment in massive numbers. They will be considerably more obnoxious than they would be in person, not only because their nose is not in range of the fists of the people they are insulting, but because anonymity is extremely common on Twitter. It’s hard to miss the fact that the vast majority of people engaging in Twitter pile-ons are anonymous.
On top of that, many people create fake Twitter accounts; others buy them wholesale by the hundreds and there are legions of bots. This is an enormous problem and although nobody knows exactly how many there are, the number of fake accounts must stretch into the millions. Maybe TENS OF MILLIONS. What that means is that Account #1 may scream “**** you, you ****ing ****.” Five of his other bots may like that and then the same person may tweet “She’s a whore,” “What an ugly b****” and “Suck a shotgun, you skank” with accounts 7, 8 and 9. That’s one person, but it looks like 9 people are involved.
Even a relatively moderate negative comment from a large account can lead to tremendous amounts of abuse. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently suspended from Twitter, not because of anything he personally said to actress Leslie Jones, but because she received enormous numbers of abusive and racist tweets from his FOLLOWERS and quit Twitter. Here’s a little secret: that sort of abuse is the RULE on Twitter, not the exception. If large political accounts were universally held responsible for what their followers do, there wouldn’t be any large political accounts left on Twitter. Big political accounts on both sides regularly use this as a weapon. If they have something negative to say to you, expect a few hours of obnoxious attacks from their followers.
If you haven’t gotten used to it (and I suspect more sensitive souls never get used to it), it’s an unpleasant experience. Imagine saying something that the vast majority of your friends and acquaintances would agree with. It gets amplified by the other side and then abusive comments start pouring in. Some of them are bizarre or threatening. Many of them aren’t even related to what you said; they’re just insults. The crudest insults are then liked hundreds of times. Responding is pointless because who has time (or the desire) to respond to thousands of hostile, mostly anonymous people? If you don’t think the other side is a bunch of bloodthirsty orcs, you will after getting on the wrong end of a couple of Twitter hate mobs.
Now, couple that with the fact that because you choose whom you follow on Twitter and tend to follow people who ALREADY AGREE WITH YOU, most people are overwhelmed with confirmation bias. They hear nothing all day long except people saying what they already believe and if someone gets off track, they simply unfollow him. So, you end up with a hivemind on “your side”— where your thinking about most issues is rarely challenged—coupled with overwhelming blasts of loathing when you engage with the other side. You then repay the favor by trolling people who disagree with you because Twitter incentivizes that and the whole cycle begins again. For many people, this has not led to a realistic perception of the world; it has led to hysteria, perpetual outrage, and a seething dislike for people on the other side.
Twitter is not solely responsible for the deterioration of political norms, radicalism and the rising tide of hatred in American politics, but the toxic environment the service has created has done far more than its fair share to poison politics in America.