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22 July 2023

Twitter is breaking our politics

Fight a culture war too long, and you can no longer see when you’ve gone round the bend.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a Twitter thread I’ve been adding to for literally years now, whenever I see something that fits. In it, I highlight what to me look like absurd examples of Nimby campaigning: the minor celebrity fighting to protect an overgrown concrete expanse from housing; the Labour MP protecting a snooker hall; the local Green group protecting a car park.

Here’s the thing, though. If I’m absolutely honest with you, I haven’t always properly looked into the schemes I’m using the thread to highlight, and it’s at least possible that some of them are actually bad. Not every housing development is worth fighting for; not everyone opposing them is a selfish monster who cares more about house prices and their dog-walking route than they do about others’ right to a home. The longer the thread gets, the greater the likelihood that in at least some of those cases I’m wrong.

So why do I continue to do this? Partly to keep track of examples I might, with more fact checking, use in an article one day; but mostly because there are, as the “extremely online” say, numbers in it. I do it because I know it’ll get likes and retweets. I do it because I know people will applaud.

This behaviour is hardly unusual on Twitter, where social media is at its purest and rawest. But you can see it too in Facebook groups and subreddits, and no doubt soon enough on Mastodon, Bluesky and Threads, too. If you know that, every time you press a particular button, people will cheer, you’re going to keep pressing that button.

Conversely, if every time you press it, another group of people boo, you’re naturally going to move towards the first group and away from the second. This, I suspect, is why some bits of the internet – and some of the debates it contains – have an unnerving ability to take sensible, rational people who have slightly different opinions, and turn them into mortal enemies who would be genuinely happy to see their opponents dead. Fight a culture war too long, and you can no longer see when you’ve gone round the bend.

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[See also: Travel influencers are making tourism dumber]

That a writer would do these silly things at least makes a certain amount of economic sense. If you run an article earnestly arguing that the most urgent issue before the British people is, say, the need for a new royal yacht, and find that it gets a load of clicks, you’re incentivised to run more such articles. It probably doesn’t matter too much to you whether those clicks are entirely supportive, or from people who just want a new thing to mock: a click is a click.

The problem is that, on Twitter, the same incentives apply to everybody else too. So you end up with weird right-wingers photographing their aggressively beige dinners under the impression that they’re “owning the libs”, or Labour activists treating every political or economic development from Venezuela to the Donbas as nothing more than fodder for their campaign against other groups of Labour activists. A few weeks ago a Scottish Nationalist demanded I debate him long after I’d suggested we just let our disagreement go, and kept demanding it even when I’d said I didn’t want to fight because I was extremely recently bereaved. He genuinely could not see how this might, to some observers, look a bit unhinged.

Just as media and activism bleed into each other, so do activism and actual politics. In 2017 the Conservative candidate Ben Houchen won the inaugural Tees Valley mayoral race, by campaigning entirely in Facebook-friendly memes (nationalising the local airport; scrapping the local police force and beginning again). Politically this was a huge success – he won re-election in 2021 on a landslide – though whether this approach has done much for the Tees Valley is an open question.

But it would be a mistake to read too much into one result and to start assuming that the issues that generate heat on the internet are significant vote movers in serious times. As things stand, food and energy bills are soaring, and the most immediate effect of the government’s attempt to combat that has been to send housing costs soaring, too. Yet the issues ministers have led on in recent weeks have been Nigel Farage’s banking arrangements and the need to discipline school children who may, but probably actually don’t, identify as cats. We all laughed at Nadine Dorries for thinking the most important issue before the British people was her lack of a peerage, but the government she’s stabbing in the back has done little better.

Meanwhile, for next year’s London mayoral contest, the Tories have chosen as their candidate Susan Hall, a woman who once tweeted that she knew the economy-wrecking Truss/Kwarteng mini-Budget must be good “because the left are in melt down”. Twitter is not, as certain right-wing commentators are fond of reminding us whenever social justice comes up, the real world. They might wish to remember that themselves, before the electorate do it for them.

[See also: Why social media has become tedious]

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