Flipping The Line: In Praise of Twitter
It's no coincidence that conservatives are bailing on Twitter, yet remain silent about the problems of Facebook and YouTube.
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, Max Fawcett replies to Michelle Rempel-Garner’s recent article on why we should all quit Twitter.
Professional communicators aren’t generally in the business of reducing their reach and influence, which is why Danielle Smith’s decision last month to quit her job as a talk-radio host with Global’s 770 CHQR came as a shock to many listeners. That wasn’t the only platform she was abandoning, either, as she joined a growing chorus of high-profile conservatives who were deleting their Twitter accounts.
In a social media post explaining the decision, Smith said that she was “gravely troubled” by the state of freedom in general, and free speech in particular, here in Canada. “My entire adult life and career has been spent questioning authority and institutions and conventional wisdom,” she wrote. “I’ve been all too aware that in many nations of the world it is against the law to speak truth to power. It can be dangerous. Sadly, in the last year I’ve noticed there are times where it has become perilous here too.”
Cancel culture, it seemed, was reaching the point where people were voluntarily — and, perhaps, pre-emptively — cancelling themselves. And Smith was hardly alone. In a piece for The Line, Michelle Rempel-Garner effectively called for everyone to cancel themselves on Twitter, and by extension cancel the platform itself. “Twitter has weaponized rage, and profits by it,” she wrote. “A consensus should arrive that it needs to be abandoned; to make it a place where no one comes to get news or to make news.”
Rempel-Garner is not innocent, by her own admission. She has, in the past, used Twitter to weaponize rage against the Liberal government with almost reckless abandon. Even so, Rempel-Garner’s central point, that Twitter can have a corrosive impact on our interactions with each other, is a fair and accurate one. Even in our highly-polarized political climate, that’s an observation that everyone — Liberal, Conservative, or New Democrat — should be able to agree on.
Where there will be less agreement is on her proposed solution, which is that everyone should abandon the platform. After all, it conveniently targets the platform where conservative voices aren’t in the ascendancy, and ignores the ones where they are. Twitter may be where the idea of “fake news” first took root, but Facebook and YouTube are major contributors to its continued spread. These latter social media platforms are clearly major drivers of the production and distribution of deceitful, deceptive, and dangerous information. And unlike Twitter, where everything generally happens out in the open, the worlds that people can create on Facebook are far more opaque.
And many of the worst offenders are part of the right (and far-right) social media ecosystem. These groups and channels have fostered the growth of any number of dangerous conspiracy theories, from COVID-19 skepticism to the Qanon movement. Indeed, as Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, told The Guardian last year, “Facebook is a unique platform for recruitment and amplification. I really do not think that QAnon as we know it today would have been able to happen without the affordances of Facebook.”
This curiously inconsistent attitude towards social media raises an important question: are conservatives like Smith and Rempel-Garner really interested in supporting free speech, or are they simply afraid of the blowback they receive for their own online misbehaviour?
I’m not innocent, either. I was on the receiving end of it back in 2017, when a stupid tweet of mine went viral and nearly cost me my job at the time. But as I wrote for the Globe and Mail in 2019, “social media may be an amplifier for our worst impulses, but it can also be an opportunity to learn about yourself, if you choose to see it that way. For its many flaws, one of Twitter’s redeeming virtues is that it’s very good at holding a mirror up at us, and it’s even better at punishing us for any hypocrisies that reflection reveals.”
That’s why I’ve come here to praise Twitter, not to bury it. I readily confess that I have a bias here, which is that I like and enjoy Twitter. I probably like and enjoy it too much. And there are times when it brings out my worst tendencies, as it does for millions of other people. Even the Dalai Lama is probably a bit of a dick on Twitter.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the more constructive aspects of Twitter — aspects that are conspicuously absent in the other major social media platforms. On Twitter, we can follow scientists and writers and professional athletes that we admire and respect. If we’re lucky, they’ll even interact with us on occasion. And we can learn from the expertise of some of the smartest people in the world, whether it’s about the latest COVID-19 vaccine trial or the constitutional intricacies of American democracy.
Twitter is also a digital meritocracy, which is something that ought to appeal to conservatives. Careers have been built on the backs of being good at tweeting, ones that have led to book deals in New York, television deals in Los Angeles, and any number of other opportunities in between the coasts. Having a blue check mark, or being a person of influence in the real(er) world, is no guarantee of success on Twitter. Instead, it’s all about what you do with — and on — the medium.
There’s no question that Twitter is a more unpleasant experience for women like Ms. Rempel-Garner than it is for white men like me. But while Twitter’s capacity for anonymity can feed this cancer, it’s clearly a mirror of the broader society that we live in. We should all be united in our desire to stamp out sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the culture of toxic masculinity that tends to underwrite those bigotries. It’s not at all clear that this is best achieved by abandoning the platform that has done more than any other to help others shine a light on the people who trade in those things.
So yes, Jack Dorsey still has some work to do when it comes to finding ways to incentivize better behaviour on his platform. As Rempel-Garner argued in her piece, we need to collectively demand — and do — better. But Dorsey has far less to answer for than the CEOs of Facebook and YouTube, whose platforms are far more effective vectors for misinformation, fear, and division. I understand the temptation to abandon Twitter, and I especially understand it when it’s being expressed by conservatives. But unless they’re willing to completely abandon social media, we’re all better served by focusing on improving it — and, hopefully, ourselves.
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