How Twitter could be the death of liberal democracy
Social media's rush to judgment is indicative of something ominous that's happening to our political culture
This has been a deeply demoralizing week for American media and democratic culture — one with implications that may well point to something far worse.
First, on Thursday night, Buzzfeed published a sensational scoop alleging that President Trump suborned the perjury of his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. As dozens of reputable media outlets and many more media personalities on Twitter pronounced over the following day, this was an act that if true would be a very big deal. The unverified character of the allegation did nothing to keep a slew of commentators from suggesting that the president was now on the verge of facing near-certain impeachment and removal from office for his crimes. Yet on Friday night, the story suffered a severe body blow when Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office issued a sweeping statement disputing its accuracy.
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.
The main teenager featured in the video was treated as the face of entitled white supremacy, his smile (or smirk) as he faced the counter-protester serving as proof that he is the direct successor to the bigots who stood against the Civil Right Movement. Even after longer, fuller videos of the confrontation emerged, showing that the import of the event was far less clear-cut than the initial hot takes assumed, the tweet-mob continued to eviscerate the high schoolers, pronouncing their faces worthy of a good punch.
Neither of these events is very important in the grand scheme of things. The former will either be vindicated or buried by the report Mueller eventually files about 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 convulse the country through the Trump era and beyond.
Yet both are indicative of something ominous that's happening to our political culture. 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.
Cultivating and sustaining liberal politics in a continent-wide nation of well over 300 million people is hard work. This is especially true when ideological polarization and technological developments encourage political and cultural trends that make it harder. Both conspired to help put Donald Trump in the White House. But they've also given us an illiberal reaction to his presidency on the part of progressive activists, journalists, and other media personalities.
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 that's not the only, or even the most far-reaching, threat that Twitter poses to our civic life. As Andrew Sullivan noted nearly three years ago in an important essay on America's slow drift toward tyranny, Plato believed that political regimes and the souls of their citizens mirror each other. 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 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.
In 1984, George Orwell famously described a totalitarian political order in which people were kept as docile subjects in part by a daily ritual called "Two Minutes Hate" in which the population directs all of its pent up fury at "Goldstein," a possibly fictional enemy of the state.
Thanks to Twitter, we now know that the same dynamic can arise spontaneously, with fresh ire directed at a new manifestation of the partisan enemy nearly every day. It shows us that under certain circumstances — our circumstances — people can and will fasten onto an endless succession of real-life Goldsteins for the sheer, addictive joy of it — for the pure, delirious pleasure of denouncing manifestations of evil in our midst. 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.
We see this on the right, we see it on the left, and we increasingly see it among ostensibly nonpartisan journalists. No matter where it originates on the political spectrum, it is an impulse we indulge at our peril.
How long will a citizenry consumed by the untamed lust to banish ideological opponents into outer darkness continue to view the sharing and alternation of political rule as a worthwhile civic habit and ritual? We may be dangerously close to finding out.