Unfortunately, we live in the age of Twitter-driven politics
Even in the best of times, Twitter isn’t exactly the ideal online destination for finding nuanced and thoughtful analyzes of complex social issues – which makes the political discussions that emanate from this platform excruciatingly caricature.
Doom scrolling on the social media giant reveals a parade of ideologically dreary political soundbites – outrage that serves more to generate retweets and clicks than political education or persuasion. Given the extent to which broader political culture appears to be guided by such a procession of self-righteous outrage, it is easy to see why the unadulterated party hatred that prevails on social media is attributed the political divide that divides Americans .
After all, it is an increasingly common way of responding to the world on social media these days by rushing to virtue to signal one’s political loyalty with exaggeration.
Such political noise on the Internet was almost unbearable on Friday after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty by a jury of his colleagues. The online reactions to the verdict were predictably divisive – as if two halves of America had pursued two completely different trials. Scrolling through the plethora of uninformed but highly idiosyncratic hot takes on the subject was an act of voyeurism to a disgusting display of political show.
Each side trudged self-righteously through blunt partisan interpretations of the process while wearing political blinders that enabled them to focus solely on the narratives that matched their political identity. For many on the left, the events seem to demonstrate the systematic racial preferences inherent in the American judicial system. For many on the right, Rittenhouse was an avatar for all that is just in this world, unjustly reviled by those who want to tear the nation apart.
The truth is, Rittenhouse is just a young man who made an inexcusably stupid decision unnecessarily to fit into a sensitive and seditious situation in Kenosha, Wisconsin – apparently because he had a high-handed desire to play cop for the night. Nonetheless, as the jury finally concluded, he also acted within the framework of the legal requirements of self-defense when he used lethal force against three people who threatened him with serious bodily harm – one of whom was armed with his own firearm.
However, Twitter’s blue tick swamp rushed to further their own narrative of events, portraying him as a two-dimensional villain – or a hero, depending on your perspective. In reality, the world is seldom broken down into such binaries. Yet these rare voices, expressing a more nuanced analysis, have been largely attacked by the louder members on both extremes.
Such an incessant display of tribalism was just the latest example of the Twitter verse foray into political absurdity on complex issues. Almost every day, Twitter is inundated with people who consider themselves the standard bearers of their preferred political tribe – an opportunistic virtue that signals their opposition to anyone who does not firmly keep up with their worldview through caricature and superficial arguments of 280 characters.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, given his productive use of the medium, it was easy to see how trending topics on social media were affecting regular political discourse. But even if Trump is banned from the platform, much of our political news, partisan narratives, and cultural conversations remain heavily influenced by the screaming battle that has become Twitter.
It is difficult to say which came first, the partisan contempt that is currently taking up our political discourse, or the aggravating effect of social media on it, one thing seems certain: the two feed each other. And the result is growing intolerance among Americans towards those who hold opposing political positions.
It’s a damaging dynamic for a nation as ideologically diverse as America. After all, allowing partisan politics to define who we are as individuals, online or offline, is a tragic way to find one’s way in life. After all, most of our daily life is not about politics. And defining ourselves by the hatred we are supposed to have for others is not a way of improving the human situation.
Fortunately, the online landscape that embodies so much of our modern day political dysfunction is not exactly representative of the general public.
On his new Amazon Prime show, British auto journalist Jeremey Clarkson comically described Twitter as a place where “very left people increasingly express leftist views on other left people.” While his description is clearly influenced by his own political beliefs, he is not entirely wrong. A 2019 study by Pew Research confirmed a subtle left-wing bias on the platform – but the real takeaway from the report was how few people are actually driving the conversations that “go viral.”
In its study, Pew divided Twitter users into two groups: the top 10 percent of the most active users and the bottom 90 percent. Among the bottom 90 percent, the average person had only tweeted twice and had only 19 followers. The top 10 percent, on the other hand, tweeted an average of 138 times a month.
In other words, even if it seems like everyone with an internet connection suddenly has an opinion on a certain topic, in fact, it is little more than a tiny fraction of the users that causes excessive political outrage. Or, as Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic, “Twitter is a highly individual experience that functions like a collective hallucination, not a community.”
However, this hallucination is extraordinarily powerful in order to fuel our social discourse offline. Even without Donald Trump making headlines every day, trending topics on Twitter often become the main talk of cable news roundtables, fodder for political columns, and the focus of family conversations at our kitchen tables.
And because politicians dismiss such two-dimensional outrage, it’s not unrealistic to expect campaign policy to be fueled by the same performative outrage that is so inextricably woven into one of the world’s largest social media platforms … despite the fact that the Majority of Americans don’t even log in.
Michael Schaus began his professional career over a decade ago as a columnist, political humorist, radio talk show host and most recently as communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. In 2021 Michael founded Schaus Creative LLC, a creative branding and design agency that helps organizations, companies and activists tell their story and motivate change. Follow him on SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.