Twitter and the structure of polarisation

A few days ago, I tweeted* a complaint to a public transport operator in frustration at how few people were wearing masks on their services and the seeming lack of enforcement by the operators. I was visiting my parents, who’ve been shielding since March and I was growing increasingly concerned that I was exposing them to risk – even allowing for the fact I’ve only been sitting in their garden at a distance, wearing a mask on the occasions I’ve gone in to use the toilet – by the fact I was getting the tram to their house every day from where I was staying in the city centre. I was surprised to find that I was immediately met with torrents of abuse ranging from the blandly hectoring (“why don’t you think about people who are exempt from this policy?”**) through to the offensive (“you would have been part of the Gestapo, snitch”) and the sociologically revealing (“just because you’re too afraid to be without your muzzle, don’t enforce it on everyone else”). This was accelerated when a prominent media commentator, seemingly king of anti-lockdown Twitter, quote tweeted my initial comment in a dismissive way.

Perhaps immaturely, I took advantage of my (nearly) anonymous account to try and troll some of these people, seeing what responses I could elicit and if I could tie any of them in knots. This was driven by a sense of interest in how quickly this online niche had formed, seemingly built around the familiar habit of sitting on the mentions of an organisation in order to insert themselves into tweets to that organisation, as well as what the implications might be of adherence to face coverings on public transport being politicised so quickly. It’s also unsettling to be unexpectedly subject to such a torrent of abuse, given me a small and trivial insight into the daily reality of women and people of colour using Twitter, particularly those with a public profile. It’s an experience I’ve had before from time to time, most memorably when I made the mistake of tweeting about Madeleine McCann, only to discover there’s a vast and active McCann Twitter keeping track of references to her on the platform.

What makes it so unsettling is that we rarely encounter discordant views like this in everyday life. We encounter disagreement but it is mediated through existing relationships of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. This mediation entails an inevitable modulation of the disagreement, operating through what Pierpaolo Donati calls the relational goods in so far as they exist e.g. the familiarity, mutual trust or shared concerns we have with this person. Obviously, this breaks down on occasion and there are points when it is relationships with others that leads to the modulation, for example if we ignore an offensive colleague because we don’t want to cause a fight at work. But the media wouldn’t find stories of relationships breaking up over Brexit or families splitting over Trump so interesting if this was the norm rather than the exception. In contrast, we encounter no such mediation on Twitter, there are just individual units of political disagreement clashing against each other, with accelerating force as socio-political polarisation intensifies.

There’s no shared definition of the situation, no common context, no commitment to living together. There’s just the brutal fact of disagreement, liable to become more entrenched the more time someone spends in this environment and the more strategic their orientation to it becomes. One of the hunches I’ve had for a long time is that a significant chunk of what’s called ‘trolling’ understands itself as a form of activism, an impulse to win the online war through discursive victory over those they disagree with. To the extent this is the case, it entrenches and deepens the dynamic I’m talking about, leaving the parties (or at least one of them) with an active commitment to non-modulation, let alone any of the modulating factors which constrain our disagreements beyond the platform.

The result I find increasingly is an overwhelming space, where the waves of political discord which I experience as ‘out there’ in my everyday life, have a tendency to suddenly wash over me in ways I find deeply unpleasant. I recognise my capacity to experience it as ‘out there’ is itself a function of privilege. It’s getting progressively harder for even the most privileged of us to float freely in our undisturbed bubbles, but perhaps this was only a viable expectation for white middle class men in the first place. However I think it’s a mistake to see Twitter in terms of the real of antagonism, away from the false mediations which shape our everyday experience of it. It is itself mediated in opaque and anti-social ways, as the platform studies literature has documented at lengths. It therefore becomes a matter of the social effect of different forms of mediation rather than accurate/inaccurate windows on the world.

It’s for this reason that I find Twitter an ever more off-putting space, which leaves me with an almost palpable sense of the social fabric fraying as we move further into this epochal crisis. That fabric would be fraying without Twitter but its capacity to produce such a sense in users, as well as what this inclines those users to (in my case disengagement and withdrawal) is itself part of the process. We’re living through a profound transformation in the structuring of socio-political polarisation and I’m going to find the process much easier to cope with if I keep my distance from Twitter.

*Yes I deleted my Twitter account last November but I setup an anonymous one at the start of lockdown because I thought I’d feel the need to have some connection with the wider world during this period, as well as being able to use it for filtering news and commentary. 

**I did, in my next tweet. The point I made was that it seemed incredibly unlikely 50-75% of people travelling fell into this category.