Twitter is known for its fast-moving newsfeed and short, character limited tweets, so how did it become the heart of political debate on social media? Caragh Medlicott charts the rise of Twitter’s toxic politics and the harm caused by its intolerance for nuance in political debates.
Growing up I knew very little about politics. That interest flourished later, in university – before that, I attended a Catholic comprehensive in Birmingham and this made religion the more contentious topic of debate amongst my peers. Myself, every one of my friends, and the vast majority of the student body was of Irish descent. As such, the school was mostly white and from a working-class background. Saying you didn’t believe in God was sure to elicit more of a response than a particular political standpoint. By sixth form, I’d developed a few more sensibilities; I rolled my eyes at my Grandad’s devotion to The Sun and was beginning to incubate a burgeoning, unnamed brand of feminism. Still, even then, an allegiance to the Blues or Villa seemed more likely to throw up arguments than whispering support for the Conservatives or Labour.
This neutrality – or ignorance, as it could also be labelled – changed with vigorous rapidity when I started at Cardiff University. Everything was political; my friends, my lectures, and – very soon – my opinions. If university fanned the flame of my political outlook then Twitter became the blast of pure oxygen which turned the flammable explosive. I was burning with unrestrained anger and passion. It seemed unfathomable to me that a person could vote Conservative without being a heinous, moustache-twirling villain (an outlook I still find hard to shake). By the third year, I was completing my degree at the height of cancel culture, and – in many ways – at its epicentre; I was an editor at the student newspaper when a cancelled Dapper Laughs gig at Cardiff’s SU paved the way for the Germain Greer no-platforming debate of 2015. It was a particularly nasty and acrimonious issue that soon spread beyond Cardiff and into the spotlight of national news. It wasn’t about right versus left as much as young versus old.
When I look back on that time, I can see that my views were more nuanced than they likely appeared to be on my Twitter feed. Contemporary women’s writing was one of my areas of study and I was well aware of how important Greer’s work had been to second-wave feminism. This information didn’t change the fact that I saw her as a transphobe. The no-platforming issue was coming to a head and I was of the mind that taking away a particular platform was not in opposition to free speech. Greer could say what she liked, but we didn’t have to hand her a megaphone. It wasn’t a line of thinking I’d arrived at on my own; Twitter – like a guiding tidal wave – pushed me decisively in one direction. Most of what I felt I still standby. The issue wasn’t so much my viewpoint itself as how I’d reached it. I was never exposed to real debate and everyone I spoke to felt the same way that I did. On Twitter, even a whiff of dissent resulted in immediate shutdown – is it any wonder I could only see opposing views in caricature terms?
As quickly as my politics had been electrified and coiled up at university, my views gradually began to unspool as I entered the mythological “real world”. It wasn’t that I was beginning the proverbial journey from left to right, far from it, but meeting people I respected who held different viewpoints to my own made me wonder if there might be more nuance out there than the online world allowed for. Besides, I was becoming increasingly wary of being political on Twitter; I worried that I might miss something and say the wrong thing. It seemed to me that online mistakes were stains that never washed out. When the right-wing media characterised young people as “snowflakes” I rolled my eyes; when they accused the online left of “Oppression Olympics” I secretly felt that, in certain instances, this was true. Twitter could only see things in black and white terms, and there was never any room for the inevitable shades of grey.
It seems that among Twitter’s more extremist ranks, anything but radical socialism can be equated to moral bankruptcy. The mean-spiritedness’ of left-wing Twitter has led to a renaissance of puritanism dressed up as social advocacy; there is a long, growing list of things that are forbidden, demands of guilt, and a general sense that if you’re having a good time, you’re doing something wrong. Of course, this isn’t to say that Twitter is entirely toxic or that all the blame should be shifted onto young people, but there is undeniably a generational gap in how different age groups engage with the platform. Then there’s also the political divide. The left is always held to a higher moral standard than the right, and it’s also more naturally prone to self-righteousness (then, it’s not hard to foster such feelings when the Tories are openly voting to not feed starving children and choosing to stand by known bullies). Political issues are emotional – people are entitled to get angry. I don’t believe that marginalised groups should have to frame their arguments in calm, digestible terms in order to be heard; what the right describes as “wokeness” is often just an instinct for kindness and inclusivity. It’s only when that same instinct becomes an instrument to bash others over the head with that it becomes problematic.
Twitter politics has one overriding issue, and it’s the same across the political spectrum: a total intolerance for nuance. Why has this factor been exacerbated by social media? The pouting petulance of the left hasn’t helped, neither has the derisive sneering of the right. Maybe the bigger problem is the odd transformation that occurs when someone is placed behind a screen. It’s certainly easier to ignore another person’s humanity when their avatar is from Rick & Morty. On the extreme end, this leads to threats of violence and trolling, but even in relatively civil arguments, it allows people to be reductive about the complexity of the person they are speaking to. Psychology tells us that people believe, on the whole, that the majority of other humans are good. If arguments, and debates, were undertaken with the understanding that the other person was – essentially – doing what they thought was right, the outcomes would surely be more productive. But alas, you don’t argue on Twitter to persuade or learn, you argue with one goal in mind: to win (a victory which can be gauged solely in the support you receive from the people who already agree with you – the quote Tweet function has a lot to answer for).
A line of thinking that’s common to Twitter states that it’s perfectly acceptable to avoid conversations with people of different political outlooks because, in real terms, their views translate into something aggressive and evil. In some cases this is fair enough, nobody can demand our time and energy, and no one should have to engage with a person who is actively challenging their right to exist. But we can’t all think like this, can we? If politics, in the broadest sense, pertains to our world view on how society should be organised, we surely want to see that society brought to fruition? In order for that to happen, we have to persuade the majority of people that our vision for society is a good idea. In the UK, it feels that there’s a middle class, elitist edge to Twitter – an edge that has no time for the British working class. Education, compromise and patience are qualities severely lacking in the social justice arena. Privilege is an important mechanism for understanding the complexities of society – yet it’s become a dirty word, an insult, something people wish to shrug off or weaponise.
In October, Professor Matthew Godwin caused something of an uproar; the Commons cross-party education committee was investigating the underachievement of white, working-class pupils and Godwin asserted that terminology like “white privilege” was causing a “status deficit” for these low-income students. It should surely go without saying that someone can benefit from their racial privilege while still being severely disadvantaged by their economic background. It seems the social justice argument has become so reductive that even academics are falling into the trappings of over-simplification. White privilege is a real, tangible thing that will not disappear because we stop naming it. Shouldn’t we be striving to add more nuance and depth into these conversations, rather than less? It seems to me that Twitter’s clumsy “call out” culture has worsened confusion and resentment among many. Every person exists on a scale of complex, intersecting privileges and disadvantages; privilege is something we should be aware of, something we should do our best to utilise for good, but it’s not a personal failing. In the thick of unnuanced conversations, it feels like we’ve lost sight of that.
Back in 2018, I wrote a piece about millennials and social media for Wales Arts Review, in it I talked about the impossibility of forcing social media to “fit neatly into any moral framework”. At the time, I was frustrated with the media’s reductive representation of social media as something wholly bad or evil; social media can be and is used for so much good. Today, social media still resists that neat categorisation, and every platform comes with its own problems, but Twitter – arguably the most public of the social media frontrunners – has become synonymous with the left’s bad attitude. It’s cliquey. It’s mean. And it’s become stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle; people are scared of misstepping, and punish those who do by fatalistically “calling them out” in a very public way. With takes on takes on takes, Twitter has become a place where people must rush to find the most morally flawless opinion or standpoint – but these issues are often too complex to be fairly considered in just 280 characters. Not only is it exhausting, at some point we need to evaluate whether it’s actually useful. Public shaming may be Twitter’s personal tool for enacting social change, but I’m of the old fashioned view that we must at some point return to empathy, conversation and – crucially – an awareness of the wider nuance that sits behind every trending topic and hashtag.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.