Your Twitter Activism Is Numbing You
Monday Notes
Your Twitter Activism Is Numbing You
Doing politics on the internet has enfeebled our democracies.
Published on: May 30, 2022  |  

I’ve drifted away from Twitter. I’d like to tell you that it was a principled decision—that the format of the site did it, that it’s the vitriol, the shallowness. But it’s not that at all. I’d also like to tell you how I feel a lot better now that I spend less time on the site, but I can’t do that either. (If anything, I feel more out of step with the world now that I’m not getting less of my news through the Twitter firehose.)

No, what’s caused me to drift away from Twitter is a sense of the futility of the place.

Shadi and I talked about it a little on the most recent episode of the podcast, but I’d like to drill down into it some more. As I said on the episode, logging onto Twitter after the Uvalde massacre was off-putting not because the tone of the discussion was hostile and partisan. It’s that the experience of reading the discussion on Twitter in the tragedy’s aftermath crystallized for me the way in which the dominant mode of discussion on the site—a kind of affirmation-seeking piety—is a waste of time.

Matt Yglesias tweeted what arguably was an ill-timed sentiment just as news of the tragedy was spreading:

Matt got ratioed quite quickly. And while one can make the argument that the censure Matt received was well-deserved on politeness grounds, I suspect the reason Matt initially doubled down (before apologizing), and indeed the reason he has not taken down the initial tweet, is that a lot of the blowback was grounded on sensitivity grounds. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think it's an important one. It’s the difference between being rude and being unsentimental. The sentimental approach to politics that Twitter has helped sew into our national discourse is, I think, what’s started to push me away from the platform.

My distaste for sentimentality, especially when wrestling with weighty issues, is a personal preference. And when one is unsparing about things (as I sometimes tend to be) one should fully expect to get pushback and criticism. If you’re getting a beat-down on Twitter, don’t whine. If you’re wrong, learn from your mistake. Engage with your earnest detractors. If you’re not wrong, either fight back or let the storm pass—whatever your pleasure. In other words, I’m not complaining about how unsentimental perspectives unfairly get shut down on social media. If you’re unsentimental in your analysis, don’t be overly sensitive about the pushback when it comes.

As I said, I’m drifting away from Twitter, I’m not fleeing it. And the reason for my drifting away is that participation in an ostensibly political space increasingly shaped by sentimentality feels largely futile. Not simply because sentimentality doesn’t easily yield to argument. Rather, it’s that sentimentality leads to a feckless, symbolic politics—a politics of signaling but not a politics of action.

I remember first being struck by a version of this phenomenon in 2009 when, overnight, almost all of the avatars on Twitter turned green in support of Iran’s “Green Revolution”. Very few of the people I follow on Twitter are Iranian, or Iran experts, or even Middle East hands. And yet everyone was moved to show solidarity with a movement in a faraway land that they understood to feature the forces of decency fighting against the forces of barbarism. A similar phenomenon can be observed today with an overwhelming number of people sticking Ukrainian flags in their profiles.

I don’t know enough about Iran to have anything smart to say about the virtues (and shortcomings) of the Green Revolution, but I stand on the side of Ukraine in most of the arguments we’re dealing with today. And while I have no yellow and blue in my profile, I’m not against people finding ways to show solidarity with things occurring in the world that happen to move them.

But there’s something different about how solidarity is done on the internet as opposed to the real world. You might say that changing your avatar or putting a national flag into your handle is no different from how Americans started tying yellow ribbons onto trees outside their houses both in solidarity with troops deployed in Iraq, and as a general anti-war sentiment. But the sense of degree, and the sense of personal investment, matters. Tying a ribbon to a tree was certainly a political statement, but everyone understood it to be quite low on the scale of investment in a cause. It was a passive demonstration of sentiment, not a real sign of commitment. On the internet, such demonstrations of solidarity take on a different valence. Instead of tying a ribbon to a tree, one is all of a sudden wearing the colors everywhere one goes. What may have started as a desire to show solidarity quickly becomes a tribal marker, and becomes invested in a sense of deeper belonging, often becoming a kind of virtue signaling that extends beyond whatever virtue the initial cause itself may have entailed.

And the problem is not that virtue signaling is inherently bad, but rather that it paradoxically cheapens politics. Signaling a personal commitment to a cause is easier than ever on the internet, but doing so is no more (or less) effective than the passive act of tying a ribbon to a tree. Both are merely symbolic, sentimental acts. But on the internet, it often feels like the symbolic, sentimental act is more meaningful than it actually is. As a result, all too often people feel more politically engaged than they actually are.

On the Uvalde massacre, Shadi rightly pointed out that the outpourings of grief and rage on the internet could be used to motivate meaningful political action to ultimately effect change on the gun question. Maybe. Let’s see. But color me skeptical. The challenges to reforming gun legislation are formidable, and success may well be out of reach to even a well-organized political movement. But my prediction is that no such political movement will materialize, in no small part due to the anesthetizing tendencies of social media activism. On Twitter, you’re free to be political and speak your mind. Having done so, you can go about your day, satisfied that you’ve done your part, untroubled by the fact that what you have done has very little significance or impact.

That’s why I’m drifting away. Because the stakes are so damned low.