The Toxic Scourge of Twitter
Leave it to the Irish to discover the mot juste for what truly ails society. Author and playwright John Waters has illuminated what I’ve long thought but couldn’t articulate: Twitter, and social media more generally, is a toxic scourge on public discourse.
The avian-logoed digital public square is no Periclean Athens, though you might determine as much within thirty seconds of visiting the site. “We were assured in the beginning that social media would increase free speech and thereby enhance democracy,” Waters writes, paraphrasing the utopian prattle of Silicon Valley cheerleaders circa 2011 or so.
The internet was supposed to usher in a new enlightenment, where all of mankind’s knowledge was readily available for a minimal cost. At last, inner-city children had the same opportunity to converse in Latin, discuss the themes of treachery and filiopietism in “King Lear,” and solve quadratic equations as their aristo peers. Instead, they got screen addiction, parti-color games powered by ludic loops, and an infinite storehouse of pornography -- Gresham’s Law bringing its currency effect to technology. Not to mention the foreboding prospect of an all-seeing surveillance state.
Twitter wasn’t immune to debased impulses, despite it being frequented by press cognoscenti who, in theory, or more informed than the hoi polloi. Rather than serve as an open quad for the free flow of ideas, it is insular and mocking of heterodox opinion that crosses the liberal line. “Twitter has come to function as the chief policing weapon of public conversation -- being the unofficial instrument of editing, censoring, bullying, silencing, demonizing, and cancelling,” Waters explains, drawing on the shared experience of many long-time users.
Twitter journalists charge themselves with the task of protecting the “public conversation” from online miscreants who bring up uncomfortable topics like sexual dimorphism and false rape accusations. Since anyone with basic English skills and a rudimentary internet connection can log on to Twitter with a fake name and stir up trouble, journalists play at being soldiers under siege in their billet, defending the zeitgeist against a blight of antiquated wrongthink.
This rhetorical sallying cosplay has bigger implications than keeping Twitter moderators in Hyderabad occupied. It spills out into traditional news mediums by shaping how stories are reported. “Indeed, journalists -- the supposed high priests of public conversation -- are not merely ‘on’ Twitter but thoroughly fixated by it,” Waters accurately observers. “Hence, much of what is deemed to be news either originates in or is mediated by the Twittersphere.” Vox populi, vox Twitteri.
You can watch this process play out by joining Twitter, should you not be too averse to a mite of masochism, and following any of the top reporters from the New York Times or the Washington Post, and a handful of influential bloggers, any weekday during working hours. Most of the time, they will maunder to themselves, sharing their own sarcastic thoughts on trivial matters, until news breaks, then they descend, like show birds to fluorescent light.
A narrative is quickly set. First come the direct quotes, usually something Trump said extemporaneously. Next is the feigned shock about broken norms and violating the mos maiorum that says presidents should be submissive in public and ruthless in private, never both. Previous reports, usually containing contradictory quotes, are deployed to undermine said message. Lastly comes the snark, with reporters disingenuously keening about living out another day in “****nutsville.” (Expurgation provided for the children.)
The assortment of blue-checked voices becomes a Greek chorus through non-stop retweets and quote tweets. By following mainstream reporters, your feed is quickly homogenized with one message: Trump is an incompetent boob and his supporters spent most of their school days in remedial courses.
The fruits of this now-rote process are squeezed out into cable TV coverage and daily fishwrapper articles. The reporting might look objective, fact-checked and sourced appropriately, with even-keeled forbearance, but it is undeniably the product of so many thumbing journalists staring with pallid eyes into the glaucous glow of their handheld devices. All the “news” we are now serviced with is crowdsourced and designed, not to inform, but appease the liberal crawthumpers on Twitter.
This is why CNN sics reporters on Reddit users who post pro-Trump memes. This is why the New York Times Magazine publishes a long, meandering “project” on why America is uniquely tainted because of grotesque bondage practiced everywhere else in the world. This is why a handful of Justice Department janissaries spent three years investigating factitious concord between candidate Trump and a phantasmagoria called “the Russians.”
This is also why we were treated to the latest episode of media comeuppance, where a journalist was fired for bad tweets after uncovering the bad tweets of a local celebrity who raised millions for a children’s hospital.
The last example should be a teachable moment for journalists, but it won’t be. The loss of one of their own will be seen as a necessary casualty in the never-ending war to bring liberal dissent to heel.
If you want to see how the news really works in this country, read Twitter. It is the waterhead for all of journalism’s broken practices. If you’d rather be informed, stay off social media. Look up primary sources. Don’t rely on twentysomething mediators. Talk, really talk, to your neighbor. Open up a book. Read the public debates of Cicero’s day. Few things have changed, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us.
And maybe have a finger or two of Jameson. This Irish also know how to properly digest the day’s events when it feels like mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.