When I joined Twitter originally, I it was because my daughter had persuaded me that it would be good way to promote my books, let people know about new posts here etc. ‘Well,’ I told myself (like some gullible kid accepting a free sample of heroin), ‘what harm could it do just to try?’ I am now addicted. I must spend many hours each week looking at it, and use it as my primary source of news. Yet –and I guess this is probably true of all the best addictions– a large part of me really loathes it.
When I say I loathe it, I’m not talking here about the really nasty things, the trolling, the rape threats, the racism, the routine anti-semitism. Those are vile of course, but I tend to hear about them at second hand. I am talking more about things I see every day.
So, for instance, I attempt to have a debate with someone who disagrees with me, and instead of engaging, they project onto me some stereotype they have of people who disagree with them, and shout angrily at this imaginary being. (Summary: Dissident dissents. Dissident labelled. Comforting straw man used as punchbag.)
Or. I come across a conversation between people I more or less agree with. An outsider joins in who takes a different view. The outsider is headed off. ‘That shut him up!’ someone observes. ‘Not so much “him” as “it”’ says another. They all duly ‘like’ this response. (Intruder dismissed. Intruder dehumanised. Echo chamber restored to full working order.)
And then there are the great feeding frenzies of indignation. Someone outside your own circle says something that you disapprove of: Exhibit A. You share Exhibit A with your followers, held at arm’s length with tongs. Howls of outrage ensure, continuing agreeably over many hours, becoming increasingly ad hominem all the while. Not only is Exhibit A despicable, but the person who said it is physically repulsive, sexually perverted etc etc. (Offender identified. Offender pilloried. Cosy sense of community achieved.)
But I suppose this isn’t really Twitter I’m talking about. It’s the human race. Twitter just makes these things more visible. Irving Janis described all this back in the seventies when he characterised ‘groupthink’ as including the following:
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group…
- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid
- Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Mindguards— self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information
I find myself increasingly thinking about the role of biology in this. It seems to me that many behaviours which we think of as typically human are simply part of our animal nature. Creatures right across the animal kingdom –not just mammals, but birds, fish, insects, crustaceans…– engage in elaborate and time-consuming behaviours intended to protect their territory and see off intruders. It’s one of the main functions of birdsong, for instance.
And, after all, that’s what Twitter is named after.