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You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

2 replies on “You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet”

I follow your blog from Toronto, Canada, and I happen to work for a political party of the center-left. This means, during the course of the years, I’ve gotten plenty of local (and some international) friends on Facebook (I’ve stayed immuned to Twitter fever in all this time) and liked many “progressive causes” pages. This article was written in 2011, and now in 2014 I can’t find anything else on my newsfeed except quick-articles, Buzzfeed articles, twitter shouts full of biases, logical fallacies, identity politics, people beating their own drum and getting validation from their own shouts etc.

Unfortunately, even the paper news media in the city I live in do a horrible job of journalism with inserting opinions that have a power of manipulating other people’s opinions over a certain thing and blow things out of proportion. I used to live in Italy before coming to Canada, and Italy’s (a state which is supposed to be a Banana Republic because of Berlusconi etc.) journalism had much more integrity than Toronto’s.
And the Rob Ford phenomena, the guy who got caught smoking crack cocaine while being mayor of Toronto, is not helping, as the news about it and the people “outraging” about it drowns every other single thing existing, and thus, real issues that certain neighbourhoods in Toronto are facing and would benefit from the raising of awareness of these issues.

In a climate like this, and after having had an inconclusive discussion at a bar after a few discussion with university educated people about “white male privilege” where my objection to the privilege narrative got just silenced down and I was called “abrasive and insensitive”, I did a google search myself and arrived at this fantastic blog of yours. And this doesn’t get retweeted on the blogosphere, nor do I really know of a good Canadian counterpart of a blog like yours (and we’re supposed to be so Canadian, so intelligent, rational etc., eh?). Internet is full of every single opinion, and as people who are outraged can easily find something that confirms their bias and talks to them and tune out what challenges their opinion, so can I find what validates my arguments.

I’ve had free time lately (after two election campaigns have been over and we’re in hiatus waiting for the mayoral campaign to replace Rob Ford gets into action) and I’m just devouring all your blog. Keep up the good work!
Dan

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