Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter

A friend of mine once remarked that we can either have democracy or the Internet, but not both. Even if the point is perhaps overstated, interactions on social media, and omnipresent clickbait, certainly contribute to the perception that there’s far more noise than signal on the Internet.

While it’s certainly possible to have productive conversations on social media, those seem – in my experience at least – to have become increasingly rare. Charlie Brooker once listed Twitter as his top pick in the category of video games (in the 2013 show How Videogames Changed the World), and it’s easy to see his point – the platform should perhaps simply be thought of as entertainment rather than as an opportunity for an exchange of ideas.

Yet, I do think it can be more productive for conversations and constructive argument than it currently is. So when Eusebius McKaiser asked if I’d spend an hour talking to him about how to encourage critical thinking in conversation (the podcast is embedded below), Twitter was the case-study that came to mind.

So, some observations on that general theme, in point-form:

  • For most participants that I encounter, Twitter seems to largely be performative rather than an attempt to engage in some sort of dialectic. This isn’t completely dissimilar to everyday conversation, as we often say things for effect, or without much of a follow-up strategy. But at least you know you can’t avoid further questions when talking to a live human. On Twitter, you can do a hit-and-run far more easily, and it seems to me that people take advantage of that opportunity, and don’t hold themselves to account for the consequences and implications of their speech.
  • This raises the most important issue for me: the entirely spurious distinction that I’ve heard people express, involving “real life” character as contrasted to our virtual selves. While that might have been true once upon a time, when we were not permanently online, the two “different” lives are now seamlessly intermingled, yet this distinction is still used to avoid taking full responsibility for speech. I no longer care if you’re a reasonable person in person, if you’re an ass on Twitter. A reasonable person on aggregate would typically not choose to be an ass on Twitter, just like a reasonable person would typically not choose to be an ass with some real-life conversational partners and not with others.
  • Both “virtue signalling” and provocative trolling can serve to simply incentivise “your side” to pile on and shame or harangue the person you’re talking to. I don’t think one is obviously more virtuous than the other, and I don’t think that either contributes to helping your interlocutor to think about the issues, and to maybe change their minds, or get them to think more deeply about the issues in question.
  • When we only used email (and yes, BBS etc. before that, but most people only know email), it seemed widely accepted that you can’t read tone from text. Yet, we seem to have forgotten that lesson. When we read a Tweet that seems to signal a moral or political failure, I don’t think we spend enough energy thinking about whether it was intended as it was interpreted (by us).
  • Social media allows for any random person to become a temporary celebrity, through “taking on” some famous person, or a person with a significant number of followers, and then perhaps getting lots of mentions or retweets (or even getting to be listed as trending!). So the incentives are perverse, which helps people to forget that ordinary rules of civility should also apply online, and that being behind a keyboard or touchscreen doesn’t need to turn you into an ass.
  • It’s still true that we shouldn’t feed the trolls. However, your followers, and the community, might nevertheless benefit from you sending signals about civil discourse and how to engage in it. But instead of retweeting and publicly shaming, sometimes it might be more appropriate to screenshot, obscure the name, and make the point without making it personal.
  • Where we can find the energy or motivation to engage with people who seem sincere, yet wrong, I think there’s value in not simply registering dissent, or opining without explanation. We could try to lead by example, providing context and/or an argument. And if you don’t have an argument, consider staying out of the conversation, or not starting it (if you’re the one dropping “truth-bombs”).
  • The nutshell version of the previous point: We all have the right to an opinion, but nobody else has an obligation to care about that opinion. It’s our job (the “burden of proof”) to motivate them to care.
  • Getting people to understand and implement Rapoport’s Rules would be useful, although perhaps a fool’s errand.
  • Conversations are not a zero-sum game. Other people caring about their issues doesn’t mean yours are trivial. So, if someone wants to talk about how Black Lives Matter, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that they don’t care about any non-black lives.
  • Remember that social media tends to amplify the extreme views – we shouldn’t imagine them to be representative of the whole population.
  • We should all stop encouraging the “outrage economy” by sharing obvious clickbait, or through rising to the bait it defecates onto our screens.
  • We should also vote with our wallets, through subscribing to quality journalism. The stuff that attracts anger and polarising views will get paid for by advertising, and this is a significant clue for us: if it’s free, that’s often simply because it’s trading on our fears and insecurities, and that we should be wary of effectively asking for more of it via our clicks.
  • On that point, the recent Ezra Klein discussion with Tristan Harris, on how social media incentivises negative engagement, is well-worth listening to.

The header image I use for this post is an xkcd comic, but a more serious one than is often the case. You can read (part of) the story behind it on explainxkcd.

And, the podcast of my and Eusebius McKaiser’s conversation on this topic (Radio702 and CapeTalk, 5 March 2018) can be heard by clicking the “play” button below.

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.