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Can Our Culture Escape the Twitter Doom Loop?
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Can Our Culture Escape the Twitter Doom Loop?

How human nature makes it hard not to say and do dumb things online.

As readers (I hope!) remember, last year I published a book called Divided We Fall. Its thesis was quite simple and stated in the opening paragraph. “The continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.” Why? Because “at this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” 

Throughout the book I tried to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the individual, human factor. Yes, I discussed public policy and big historic trends, but I tried to focus on how those trends impact individual human beings. In other words, I tried to describe why it made sense that Americans were increasingly driving each other crazy with mutual loathing and animosity.

No, I didn’t intend to justify widespread American anger. I wanted to understand it and explain it. And when you understand it, you realize both how misguided our rage is and how difficult it will be to break out of the escalating cycles of animosity.

And that brings me to Twitter. I’ve got a simple proposition. When we speak of America’s political “social media problem,” I’d argue we’re speaking mainly of Twitter. There are very particular ways in which the platform uniquely poisons American discourse, and some rather interesting Pew Research data (combined with old truths about human nature) is showing us exactly why.

First, let’s go to the research. These two tweets, from the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl, put the Pew Research Center data in context. Here’s tweet one:

And here’s tweet two:

Now, let’s combine the information in the two tweets above with the reality that Twitter is the dominant platform for cultural, political, and academic elites to converse with each other. Even those elites with large Facebook/Instagram followings don’t battle one another on those platforms (with the exception that there can be some rather spicy Instagram drama between celebrities). 

So, how does the fact that engaged political users are walking into the online equivalent of Berkeley and Barbara Lee’s district impact actual human behavior and actual human perceptions?

It makes both sides more extreme. First, the sheer concentration of left-wing thought starts to trigger the Law of Group Polarization. Cass Sunstein brilliantly articulated this concept all the way back in 1999, and it’s one of the cornerstone concepts of my book. While I’d encourage you to read both my book and Sunstein’s original paper, the basics of group polarization are simple enough to state—when like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme. Or, if you want the concept in Sunstein’s own words, here’s the opening of his abstract:

In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments. For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion, to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm; people who believe that global warming is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to prevent global warming.

Combine the left-wing concentrations on Twitter with partisan concentrations in real-life (the “Big Sort” means that most Americans now live in a county where Biden or Trump won the presidential vote by 20 points or more) and you can see how “mothers” can become “birthing persons” with dizzying speed. 

Since the Law of Group Polarization is playing itself out in public, aggressively on the very same platform the right-wing elite loves to use, left-wing Twitter extremism starts to drive the right-wing Twitter to despair and rage. You’re always on the defense. The left seems ascendant everywhere. You don’t have real hope of changing the culture, but you can vent your rage, and when you vent your rage, you rally your thin ranks to your side. 

This reality mirrors the worst aspects of one-party rule in the offline world. Time and again you see a dynamic where the ruling party is drunk with power and—free of any real fear of electoral consequence—doubles down on playing to its engaged base. 

In many ways California might be the paradigmatic example of the negative consequences of left-wing one-party rule. Its excesses have grown so problematic that smart progressives are sounding the alarm. I’ve referenced this article before, but I’d urge you all to read Ezra Klein’s insightful essay in the New York Times, “California is Making Liberals Squirm.”

But offline—just like online—ruling party excess also generates minority-party extremism and fury. The sheer hopelessness of opposition in many ways relieves activists of responsibility. They’re going to lose anyway, so what’s the point of compromise? 

Moving back to Twitter, those natural and human responses are amplified by the format of the engagement itself. The pre-Twitter blogosphere could be petty and contentious, but at least if someone was outraged by one of my posts, the response—to be taken seriously—had to be substantive. 

Remember “Fisking”? The blog style of argument when a writer excerpted each paragraph of your work and attempted to dismantle it piece-by-piece? It could be irritating and performative, but at least it took real work. 

And now? Since Twitter is based around the snappy retort, it encourages drive-by snark, insults, and lies. The target  thus faces a constant dilemma. Engage with the snark, and you elevate the snark—but without enjoying the benefit of being able to develop an argument or fully rebut the lies. 

The result is that Twitter “argument” is more like a flag-waving exercise. “Look who quote-tweeted me! Rally, followers! Swarm the enemy!”

It’s all transparently and incandescently silly, but what renders it toxic is the key fact that starts this piece. Twitter is the platform where the elite speaks to the elite. So the folks who are squabbling like children (and often deeply wounded and hurt in real life) are people with real power and influence. 

That’s why companies move so quickly to respond to Twitter mobs. That’s why politicians (and their staffs) often waste taxpayer time by diving down deep Twitter rabbit holes. It’s also why elites consistently seem to misjudge public opinion. They’re distracted by their own arguments, deceived by their online strength, and misunderstand the world around them.

In hindsight, one of the most prescient pieces about the 2020 election was Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy’s analysis of the differences between online and offline Democratic voters. Read this paragraph and reflect on Democratic primary outcome—when Joe Biden steamrolled through the field:

The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project. This latter group has the numbers to decide the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of a relatively moderate establishment favorite, as it has often done in the past.

Read that paragraph and reflect on the initial outcome (pending ranked-choice allocations) of the New York mayoral race, where Eric Adams—the more moderate candidate—won the first-choice vote going away. What was his analysis?

Adams has 14,384 Twitter followers. One of his defeated opponents, Andrew Yang, has 1.9 million.

So all this data should tell us something, right? It should teach the elite that they’re making one another furious while alienating the rest of America. It should tell companies and politicians to take a deep breath before responding to any Twitter storm. It should impact the way in which elites communicate with the public—progressivism isn’t so ascendant and conservatism isn’t so doomed. 

Moreover, shouldn’t it also encourage the elite to either (1) delete the app; or (2) keep the Twitter conversation in its proper perspective? After all, if its effects are often toxic to our own souls and toxic in our culture and politics, why do we cling to it so tightly?

Let’s go back to where we started—our own humanity. Most of us are afflicted with severe FOMO (fear of missing out). You want to be where your peers are. You want to participate in their conversations. If someone is talking about you or your friends, you want to know. It takes an immense amount of self-discipline to train yourself out of this instinct, and given that real-world actors make real-world decisions based on ludicrous Twitter conversation, tuning out may not even be wise.

Moreover, at the risk of sounding trite, we tend to hear only the voices that speak to us. We do not hear silence. When the offline world rises up on Election Day, we hear them. Then we don’t. But who do we hear the next day? And the day after? And the day after that? It’s the constant Twitter conversation, buzzing in our ears, intruding on our lives, and filling our minds with the only daily public voice that many elites ever hear. 

And so the Twitter doom loop continues, and it will continue until the elite either tears itself to shreds or the pain of the “discourse” grows too great to bear, and then the market (and the culture) will replace tweets as thoroughly as tweets replaced blogs. May it happen before our leaders’ hearts are poisoned beyond repair. 

One more thing …

Greatest inbounds pass ever? Or greatest inbounds pass ever? Look at how close the ball comes to the backboard and the rim. NBA action. It’s fantastic!

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.