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6 March 2019

Want to win an argument online? Don’t give away your political position upfront

Partisan hashtags give egoists and grifters a shortcut to a diehard following and reinforce online echo chambers.

By Dorian Lynskey

In 1990 I joined the Depeche Mode fan club. Being 15 and naive, I assumed that was the thing to do if you loved a band, so off I went to the convention in London. It was a peculiar and somewhat claustrophobic night. The DJs played only records by Depeche Mode or bands who had Depeche Mode’s seal of approval. Halfway through the evening, the music stopped so that we could all behold a short video message from the band and loudly declare our excitement about their imminent new album, Violator. The topics of conversation among the fans ran the gamut from Depeche to Mode.

Music fandom is, generally speaking, more benign than political tribalism. Unlike Emily Thornberry at the Labour rally in Broxtowe last month, I did not feel obliged to say that I would rather die than join another fan club, nor vow to “crush” anyone who defected to the Cure fan club.

Nonetheless, I left the venue convinced that I was not a diehard loyalist by nature and should probably think twice about joining another group. Twenty years later I made an exception for the Labour Party, an allegiance which ended badly during last summer’s anti-Semitism crisis. It was a wrench and then a relief.

Perhaps I lack the partisan loyalty gene. I don’t even agree with myself all of the time. It seems to me perfectly possible to have strong opinions and causes to fight for without slapping an indelible label on yourself, so I find it bizarre that a growing number of people on Twitter choose to wear political identifiers like football shirts. Over the last three years, hashtags have migrated from the body of a tweet (eg #MeToo) to the profile name, where they often form part of an ungainly caravan of flags, logos and acronyms designed to eliminate any hint of ambiguity, most notably #FBPE (follow back pro-Europe) or #GTTO (get the Tories out). The accompanying bio is often crammed with even more political identities: proud this, lifelong that.

These permanent hashtags are a major reason Twitter in 2019 makes the Twitter of 2009 look like the Athenian agora. For one thing, they give egotists and grifters a short cut to a doggedly partisan following, which then incentivises them to escalate their rhetoric and generate drama. For another, hashtags are easily manipulated by trolls. When I examined the sources of the most obnoxious and inflammatory #FBPE tweets I found that many of the accounts had been deleted suspiciously quickly, and the same is true of some of the most vicious pro-Corbyn tweeters.

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Worst of all, and this is a feature not a bug, partisan hashtags repel the unconverted, triggering a mindset that Alan Jacobs, in his 2017 book How to Think, calls Refutation Mode: “in Refutation Mode there is no listening. Moreover, when there is no listening there is no thinking.” If I’m reading about Labour anti-Semitism, for example, the sight of #JC4PM2019 in a user name will boot me into Refutation Mode. Likewise, anyone who isn’t a hardcore Remainer is likely to reject an argument or opinion poll flagged with #FBPE. Such hashtags may be useful for building networks of like minds but they’re anathema to everyone else.

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When the Duke University Polarisation Lab in North Carolina conducted an experiment last year to insert tweets from opposing politicians and commentators into the timelines of Democrats and Republicans, thus puncturing echo chambers, it found that people dug in even deeper: a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Defensiveness is a hell of a drug. (I learned halfway through the book that Jacobs is a conservative Christian. Had I known earlier, I might not even have read it. Refutation Mode.)

Partisan badges can also distort cognition in subtler ways. Last year, a team of sociologists at the Annenberg School for Communication in Pennsylvania asked liberals and conservatives to interpret a Nasa graph that charted changes in Arctic sea ice.

Given the chance to revise their initial answer, half of the participants were shown a form that, for no apparent reason, had the logos of the US Democratic and Republican parties at the bottom. That group gave answers that were far more partisan, and therefore far less accurate, than the group that wasn’t shown the logos. The mere suggestion of party identification scrambled their ability to interpret data.

You don’t need a sociologist to tell you that the messenger matters. Momentum’s Jon Lansman is more likely to make Labour members take anti-Semitism seriously than Countdown’s Rachel Riley. The TSSA’s Manuel Cortes, with his left-wing credentials, could convert more Corbynites to the idea of a second referendum than “Blairite” Andrew Adonis.

Even unapologetic partisans could be a lot smarter by sweeping away the hashtag junk and letting their tweets speak for themselves. Arch-Remainer though I am, I consider #FBPE in a user name to be an act of political self-harm now that a “People’s Vote” is a real possibility: an admission that you’ve given up on persuasion.

It’s easy to blame social media companies for the gruelling trench warfare that passes for political discourse, but really we do it to ourselves. For all his sins, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, isn’t forcing anyone to brand themselves, even if he created a platform that inadvertently incentivises playing to the base. These are old habits.

Alan Jacobs illustrates the cognitive dangers of tribal orthodoxy with lines from Orwell, Chesterton and CS Lewis, written back when Twitter was something that birds did. Jacobs ends his book with “the thinking person’s checklist”: 12 reminders to think before responding, avoid provocateurs, question your knee-jerk reactions, actually listen, and so on. I would add one more: don’t join fan clubs.

This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash