Think Again, Turn Away... from Twitter

I’m approaching the four-week milestone this week of going silent on Twitter. I had initially planned a big dramatic middle-finger type send off blog post at the start of it, a sort of reverse April Fool of being completely earnest for a change, but my judgment got the better of me. And that was not only the right decision, but I am realizing this should become a more or less permanent hiatus. Twitter is, at the end of the day, a ritual, and one that has become less and less relevant to understanding our world and its politics as time goes on.

This week, as we all know, has seen Baltimore rise up in chaos as the black community angrily asserts itself, once again, that their lives are not cheap and the police should not have free reign to simply kill them without recourse or accountability. And whenever black people organize politically, there are white people telling them they’re doing it wrong, that they have no right to be angry, and that they should protest better, like white folk.

The intense hypocrisy of white people instructing black people about the most appropriate form of protest (compare how the police and media treat white sports fans or Cliven Bundy versus black people chanting “Hands Up Don’t Shoot") is almost beside the point. Though I consider myself an ally of the black communtiy and earnestly wish our society and institutions and politics were more fair and less oppressive toward them, it is not my place, from my comfortable home in a safe neighborhood, to demand that anyone protest in a specific way about personal injustice.

No, what I find so fascinating about dipping my toes back into political Twitter is to see how the stances people take – pro or anti, obviously racist, sort-of supportive but filled with racist code words, or even complete support of even smashing in and looting locally-owned stores – are so ritualistic. Conservatives condemn teenagers throwing rocks as thugs, liberals demand history be accounted for, the media fecklessly ask “Where’s the police” when the police are the problem to begin with. You can set almost your watch to it.

If you’re on Twitter long enough – say, a few days – you quickly notice that the busiest and loudest voices are completely and utterly predictable. You know who is going to take the official right wing stance, who will take the anti-right wing stance, who will cry privilege, who will cry patriarchy or matriarchy, and who will reflexively blame the same boogeymen they reflexively blame for every problem. There just isn’t any there there, and you certainly won’t gain any clarity into political issues by participating in it. At best, you’ll get all of your assumptions confirmed; at worst, you’ll wind up angry at otherwise decent people.

But that isn’t what has made Twitter irrelevant: there is some value in using it to signpost where all of the ideological lines are. Rather, Twitter has become inimical to understanding breaking events. As in: following Twitter will often make you less informed about unfolding events as not following Twitter.

Ordinarily, the traditional case for Twitter is the opposite: the service is meant to be GREAT at following something live. The traditional case, however, is wrong. I first stumbled across cracks in the argument for Twitter when I was ensconced in working in and on issues about Afghanistan (which is its own story). Nearly six years ago – I have been on Twitter a long time! – I wrote an analysis of how Twitter could be treacherous when trying to follow the Afghan Presidential election.

I’m much more likely to pore through Twitter than my news RSS feeds for one simple reason: the people whose feeds I follow are mostly other analysts and researchers, and they act as an information filter. Pre-filtered information, at least from people you trust, is much more efficient than doing the filtering yourself.

During the election on Thursday, though, this efficient filtering system broke down… As a result, my Twitter feeds during Election Day had an incredible noise-to-signal ratio—by an informal calculation, 90 percent of the tweets filling my computer screen were just retweets of something I had already seen (that is, other users were reposting, with credit, someone else’s tweets) from those same three sources. It got so bad that, by mid-morning, I had to stop reading Twitter—everything became a blur of identical tweets from the same place.

This dynamic has, if anything, become worse over time. In 2013, during the horrible week after the Boston Bombing, there was a similar dynamic at play: the rush to “track” the manhunt for the bombers let to false accusations and innocent lives ruined. The hamster wheel incentives for being first out the gate, and not necessarily the most correct with facts, have destroyed Twitter as a reliable news ticker for a breaking event. With the fairly recent addition of instant, ritualistic outrage at everything – everything is outrage porn now – Twitter is successfully combining hyperbolic, emotional overreactions to “news” that is mostly false, or incomplete, or misleadingly described.

(As a side note, the exact same aspects that make social media so addictive – its constant stream of unfiltered and unverified news leading to instant emotional overreaction – is what makes it so compelling for state propagandists, which is why Russia has moved so aggressively into trolling Twitter with state-funded comment farms.)

But Twitter does one better: not only is the outrage ritualized and predictable, and the breaking news filled with mostly bad information, but it has created space for the rapid mobilization of hate groups to heap abuse upon people who use Twitter to debate and exchange ideas. Twitter’s original appeal for the news set was as a freewheeling, but largely respectful place for random people to meet and discuss topics they found fascinating. It’s how I made several close friends, in fact. But, much like how the comments section of blogs eventually became cesspits of racism and horrific misogyny, so too has Twitter become bogged down by its trolls.

Detailing how horrifically women are treated on Twitter is a separate discussion, though it is widespread enough to prompt years of apologies, if not meaningful action, from Twitter corporate. Abuse on Twitter, and Twitter’s unwillingness to do anything to address it, is largely what also burned me out on the service a month ago. It is why I not only have found myself not missing it (the rush of information, yes, but not the lived experience of being on the service), but why I am increasingly preaching to my friends to drop it as a means of exchanging ideas and discussing things. You just don’t get that much from being exposed to the constant vitriol.

I don’t think detailing every single form of abuse I personally encountered is necessarily constructive. Rather, I think looking at the lost opportunity of Twitter as a meaningful place for exchange gets at the point more eloquently. But Twitter is not a marketplace of exchanging ideas. It is a series of echo chambers amplifying voices they agree with while attacking those they don’t (seriously: you can map this visually).

There are broader speech implications to this that I think are best left explored elsewhere, but I feel it vital to note that Twitter, though ostensible meant to lower the costs of speech online, has in fact dramatically increased the costs of speech online. These costs mount by the day, as more hate groups use it to organize personalized campaigns of terror against people whose opinions they dislike (I’ve been the target of them before, with one having reverberations for years).

Twitter obviously has other uses as well. Institutional Twitter accounts can be perfect vehicles for pushing out relevant information to journalists, donors, the public, and so on. There remains tremendous value in using Twitter as a passive information consumption device – reading news agencies, reporters, and both government and non-government agencies at work on a given issue or region. That’s how I use it now, and I will continue to do so.

But… but. I just cannot escape the steep personal costs of being too… well, personal on the thing. I might rejoin the service some day, whether to promote one of the writing projects I’m working on or to broadcast news about some events ongoing that I care deeply about. But the exchange aspect of Twitter is, I think, completely broken. And until that gets fixed I just don’t see much value in returning to the snake pit.

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