Twitter is Strictly for the Birds: Never am I more Disconnected than when Plugged in

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The battles so viciously fought in this digital gladiatorial arena have a nasty habit of spilling over into ‘real life’

‘Twitter offers the perfect conditions for developing and calcifying polarised positions.’
‘Twitter offers the perfect conditions for developing and calcifying polarised positions.’ Illustration: Guardian Design; Getty Images

Lately, I’ve expended a lot of mental energy considering Twitter. If this sounds like a sad state of affairs, don’t worry – I’m aware. But it’s preferable to my previous approach, which was a greedy embrace of everything the platform had to offer with no thought as to what exactly it was reaping from me in return, beyond data. While the little bird app has certainly enriched my life in numerous ways, frankly, its impact terrifies me now.

There is a certain recognition that online networking spaces such as Facebook, YouTube and Reddit can actively facilitate the development of extreme, obsessive views. Yet Twitter does not seem subject to the same analysis. In the mainstream, it appears to be viewed as a space where people with existing oppositional, fixed positions coalesce and shout at each other, rather than a furnace where those unyielding stances are forged in the first place.

This is an oversight. In fact, Twitter offers the perfect conditions for developing and calcifying polarised positions. It silos people off into echo chambers in which their interaction with like-minded individuals can vastly change their perception of reality. (For instance, at the 2019 election I truly thought Labour had a chance.) Twitter users are also in constant combat mode, hackles raised in anticipation of the most dreaded event: public disagreement. Dissent on Twitter is rarely ever expressed politely: it is gladiatorial. Twitter communities often show up to back their chosen fighter, furthering the sense of “us” v “them”.

Extensive research shows that disagreement – even the well-evidenced, politely delivered kind – does very little to change someone’s opinion. Often, it simply pushes that person to drive their flag further into the ground. Rather than change minds, exposure to opposing views can actually further shunt people to the other end of the spectrum. One 2018 experiment paid Republicans and Democrats to follow Twitter bots collating messages from the opposing side; they discovered both groups became more polarised, not less. When I am on Twitter, I find myself hating everything and everyone – especially myself – wasting their lives arguing about nothing. I lose my ability to empathise, to see humanity beyond the avatars. Never am I more disconnected than when I am plugged in.

Even those ostensibly on the same side find themselves locked into death spirals of disagreement. As the academic Julia Bell writes in her clarifying 2020 essay, Radical Attention: “Consensus politics, or even any kind of politics, becomes impossible, because we are too outraged to actually think. So busy interacting, raging and denouncing that we are tricked into thinking we are actually changing something, rather than just responding to these manufactured demands on our attention.”

Existing in a state of constant fury on Twitter doesn’t equate to full-blown extremism. But the obsessive, feverish, zero-sum nature of Twitter discourse certainly contributes to an environment that breeds, at best, suspicion and hostility to opposing worldviews and, at worst, festering radicalisation. Transphobia is an obvious example; Twitter has seen the spread of anti-trans views beyond the confines of niche forums to become a moral panic.

The thing is, the extreme division that characterises Twitter is not widespread in society at large. Research by King’s College London’s (KCL) Policy Institute in 2019 found that while people had become more polarised based on their political identities, for example Brexiters and remainers, differences in opinion on specific policies, such as immigration, were in fact starting to converge.

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As of 2021, only 28% of the UK population uses Twitter. But it has outsize influence. What matters is who is on there: which people are experiencing the white-hot anger of engaging daily with the timeline. “Political elites are on Twitter every day, and for all the warnings that Twitter isn’t real life, it feels like real life to them,” said Ezra Klein, the author of Why We’re Polarised, in a 2020 interview with the Verge. “They’re stuck in a hyper-polarised informational system and it influences the candidates they support, the messages they emphasise, the stories they focus on.”

Klein was speaking about US politics but his analysis applies to Britain too. It’s not just British politicians: it’s our media class – celebrities as well. If you have a public profile, the likelihood is that you’re on Twitter and active. It influences which topics are afforded importance: this week we saw Kay Burley ask Angela Rayner about whether women could have a penis, a question the Labour deputy leader quite rightly said was prominent on social media. These discussions then spill over into policy, as we saw this week when the government excluded trans people from a ban on conversion practices.

More widely, these dialogues and the people who take part in them shape public discourse. Think of the amount of news coverage and political speeches devoted to the likes of “cancel culture” or “wokeness” – terms the majority of the British public say they’ve never heard of, according to research done last year by KCL. Are trending topics on Twitter really synonymous with the most pressing issues facing a populace experiencing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s?

As Klein put it: “If [elites] become more polarised, and act in more polarised ways, that will ultimately polarise the public simply by presenting them with very polarising choices to respond to.” The antagonism and extremes of Twitter may not be “real life”. But as long as enough of the people who decide what “real life” looks like are spending time scrolling, it doesn’t really matter.

  • Moya Lothian-McLean is a journalist who writes about politics and digital culture


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