How Twitter could be the death of liberal democracy

This week has been deeply demoralizing for American media and democratic culture – a week with implications that may well indicate something much worse.

First of all, Thursday night, Buzzfeed released a sensational scoop alleging President Trump bribed the perjury of his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. As dozens of reputable media outlets and many other media figures on Twitter reported the next day, it was an act that if true would be a very big deal. The unverified nature of the allegation did nothing to prevent a large number of commentators from suggesting that the president was now on the verge of facing near-certain impeachment and impeachment for his crimes. Yet on Friday night, the story took a heavy blow when Special Advocate Robert Mueller’s office issued a sweeping statement challenging its accuracy.

Then, on Saturday, a video appeared on Twitter purporting to show a group of high school students confronting and mocking an elderly Native American protester and Vietnam veteran while wearing MAGA hats during the March for the Pro-Life of Friday in Washington. By early Saturday afternoon, that video had inspired frantic spasms of whistleblowing on Twitter – from unmistakably racist teens, their overtly fanatical Kentucky Catholic school, the overtly misogynistic and hateful pro-life movement, and indeed anyone who dares. wear a MAGA hat in public.

The main teenager featured in the video was treated as the titled white supremacist face, his smile (or smirk) at the counter-protester serving as proof that he is the direct successor to the fanatics who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Even after longer and more comprehensive videos of the confrontation emerged, showing that the importing the event was much less clear than the first supposed hot takes, the tweet-mob continued to gut high school kids, uttering their faces worthy of a good punch.

None of these events are very important in the grand scheme of things. The former will either be justified or buried by the report Mueller will ultimately file on possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and elements of the Russian government. The latter will be lost and forgotten under a mountain of other outrages that will continue to rock the country through the Trump era and beyond.

Yet both are indicative of something sinister happening to our political culture. Extreme partisan polarization combines with social media technology, notably Twitter, to cause a recurring form of political madness among members of the country’s cultural and intellectual elite. And this madness, combined with the rise of right-wing populist extremism, is pushing the country towards dangerously illiberal forms of politics.

Cultivating and sustaining a liberal policy in a country of over 300 million people across the continent is hard work. This is especially true when ideological polarization and technological developments encourage political and cultural trends that make things more difficult. The two conspired to help put Donald Trump in the White House. But they also gave us an illiberal reaction to his presidency from progressive activists, journalists and other media figures.

Much has been said about how Twitter serves as a megaphone for popular anger, made more intense by the speed of the news cycle and the distinctive malice and incompetence of Trump’s White House. But too little attention has been paid to what may be the most powerful facet of the social media platform: its ability to feed the vanity of its users. There is always an element of selfishness in intellectual and political debates. But Twitter puts every tweeter on a massive stage, with the meanest slurs, slurs and provocations often receiving the most applause. It is a huge psychological incentive to intensify the denunciation of political enemies. The more you express your indignation at the evils of others, the more you benefit from the adulation of the virtual crowd.

But isn’t a virtual crowd much less damaging than a real one? I suggested it myself, most recently in a column called “If you think another civil war is imminent, quit Twitter”. Yet more and more the venom is bleeding into the real world, with boycotts, doxings, layoffs, death threats, and creeping apologies offered to appease crowds wielding digital pitchforks. There is a growing sense that it is only a matter of time before real-world violence erupts in response to an online conflagration.

But that’s not the only, or even the biggest, threat Twitter poses to our civic life. As Andrew Sullivan noted nearly three years ago in an important test on America’s slow drift towards tyranny, Plato believed that the political regimes and the souls of their citizens were mirrored. A change in political form can lead to a change in the character of citizens, and vice versa. Tyrannies emerge in many ways, but sometimes they arise when the citizens of a democratic political community develop tyrannical souls.

What Twitter is showing us is a real-time ultrasound of the soul of America’s cultural and intellectual elite and its most committed activists – the people in charge of disseminating knowledge and leading the organization of political action in our society. The image it reveals is ugly, vulgar, strident, and intolerant, with souls exhibiting an inability to deliberate, weigh evidence, and judge wisely. They display an impulsiveness and unbridled rage towards political enemies that is incompatible with reasoned thinking about how we might govern ourselves, heal divisions in our country, and avoid a collapse into civic violence that could usher in tyranny.

In 1984, George Orwell described a totalitarian political order in which people were kept as docile subjects in part by a daily ritual called “Two Minutes of Hate” in which the population directed all their pent-up fury against “Goldstein,” an enemy perhaps. be fictitious of the state.

Thanks to Twitter, we now know that the same dynamic can spring up spontaneously, with new anger directed at a new manifestation of the partisan enemy almost every day. This shows us that under certain circumstances – our circumstances – people can and will cling to an endless succession of real-life Goldsteins for pure, addictive joy – for the sheer, delusional pleasure of exposing the manifestations of evil in the world. among us. Nothing, it seems, is as satisfying as pointing out our fellow citizens for their moral flaws and indulging in fantasies of their fully justified punishment.

We see it on the right, we see it on the left, and we see it more and more among ostensibly non-partisan journalists. No matter where it comes from on the political spectrum, it is an impetus that we give in at our peril.

How long will a population consumed by an untamed thirst to banish ideological opponents into outer darkness continue to regard the sharing and alternation of political power as a valid civic habit and ritual? We may be dangerously close to finding out.

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