23 January 2019

Twitter & Civil War

I don't participate or engage on Twitter. I did set up an account several years ago, but I can't even recall if I ever actually "tweeted" anything. (Is that even the right phraseology?) I've since deleted the account. However, I do read the Twitter accounts of others occasionally. And in doing so I quickly realized that the Twitter universe appears (at least to me) to be a virtual sewer of hate, extremism, personal insults and, most of all, adolescent level arguments. Jumping from outrage to outrage, every news item must be framed in a moral argument. Their "virtue" requires it. Their rage demands it.

So, with this in mind, I came across Damon Linker's very insightful piece about Twitter recently at The Week. I think he's spot on. Below are a few of the money quotes:
This has been a deeply demoralizing week for American media and democratic culture — one with implications that may well point to something far worse.
Linker first discusses the Cohen fiasco reported by Buzzfeed, but then goes on to the incident at the Lincoln Memorial to make his point:
Then, on Saturday, a video appeared on Twitter purporting to show a group of high schoolers confronting and mocking an elderly Native American protestor and Vietnam veteran while wearing MAGA hats at Friday's pro-life March for Life in Washington. By early Saturday afternoon, this video had inspired frantic spasms of denunciation on Twitter — of the indisputably racist teenagers, of their obviously bigoted Catholic school in Kentucky, of the transparently misogynistic and hate-filled pro-life movement, and indeed of anyone who dares to wear a MAGA hat in public.
And . . .
Extreme partisan polarization is combining with the technology of social media, and especially Twitter, to provoke a form of recurrent political madness among members of the country's cultural and intellectual elite. And that madness, when combined with the rising extremism of the populist right, is pushing the country toward a dangerously illiberal forms of politics.
Then this . . .
Much has been made of the way Twitter serves as a megaphone for popular anger that's made more intense by the speed of the news cycle and the distinctive malice and ineptitude of the Trump White House. But too little attention has been paid to what may be the most potent facet of the social media platform: its ability to feed the vanity of its users. There's always an element of egoism to intellectual and political debate. But Twitter puts every tweeter on a massive stage, with the nastiest put-downs, insults, and provocations often receiving the most applause. That's a huge psychological incentive to escalate the denunciation of political enemies. The more one expresses outrage at the evils of others, the more one gets to enjoy the adulation of the virtual mob.
But isn't a virtual mob much less damaging than a real one? I've suggested as much myself, most recently in a column titled "If you think another civil war is imminent, get off Twitter." Yet more and more the venom has been bleeding into the real world, with boycotts, doxings, firings, death threats, and groveling apologies offered to placate mobs wielding digital pitchforks. It increasingly feels like it's just a matter of time before real-world violence breaks out in response to an online conflagration.
But here's the real issue:
What Twitter shows us is a real-time ultrasound of the souls of America's cultural and intellectual elite and its most committed activists — the people in charge of disseminating knowledge and who take the lead in organizing political action in our society. The picture it reveals is ugly, vulgar, shrill, and intolerant, with souls exhibiting an incapacity to deliberate, weigh evidence, and judge judiciously. They display an impulsiveness and unhinged rage at political enemies that is incompatible with reasoned thinking about how we might go about governing ourselves, heal the divisions in our country, and avoid a collapse into civic violence that could usher in tyranny. . . . Nothing, it seems, is quite as satisfying as singling out our fellow citizens for their moral failings and indulging in fantasies of their fully justified punishment.
[All emphasis is mine.]

It is this "moral" aspect of Twitter that seems to make it so attractive to a certain segment (and profession) of our society. Linker is right and it's very disturbing. Very disturbing.

Read Linker's piece here.

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