This essay, on Twitter, engagement ad democracy, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Bryan Magee.) It was published on 7 July 2019, under the headline ‘Twitter won’t ruin the world. But constraining democracy would’.
Has the retweet ruined the world? Chris Wetherell, the software developer who built Twitter’s retweet button, thinks so. Introduced in 2009, retweeting transformed the social media landscape, he suggests, by allowing people to pass on information without having bothered to digest it. The result has been ‘the incentivising of extreme, polarising and outrage-inducing content’. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, is considering adopting ‘incentives’ to ‘encourage more consideration before spread’.
The debate over the retweet button may seem arcane and geeky. It is, though, a fascinating lens through which to understand many contemporary social issues. It reveals how social anxieties are often played out in debates about technology and how such debates reflect, and exacerbate, broader social prejudices.
The problem of the retweet is not really a retweet problem. We can understand it only in the context of broader trends, in particular, our changing relationship to news and information and the growth of a more polarised society.
Last week, the media regulator Ofcom published its 2019 report on news consumption in Britain. It showed the continuing trend of young people abandoning TV news as a source of information. Those over 65 watch 33 minutes of TV news a day. For those aged 16 to 24 that figure falls to just two minutes. Almost 50% of people now find their news on social media. They no longer simply consume news but engage with it, sharing and commenting.
Active engagement rather than passive consumption might seem to be a good thing. Many worry, though, that what it actually means is the greater spread of misinformation. As John Sergeant, the BBC’s former chief political correspondent, told Radio 4’s PM, the problem with people forsaking mainstream media ‘is that you can’t inform them and increase their knowledge… So, how do you stop them not falling prey to fake news? They only have limited knowledge and you can’t correct it.’ Such critics point to the willingness of the electorate to believe Donald Trump’s constant untruths, the Leave campaign’s infamous bus slogan and the odious conspiracy theories to which many cling as evidence of what happens in a more fragmented information landscape.
It’s true that those who voted for Trump or for Brexit are likely to have been less educated than those who oppose the US president or support Remain. Yet the roots of ignorance and misinformation are complex. A recent study in the US asked Democrats and Republicans about what their opponents thought on a range of political issues, from tax to immigration. Those who rarely followed the news had a better grasp of their opponents’ views than did news junkies. And, particularly among Democrats, the more educated the respondent, the more skewed their perception of their opponents.
Studies of Remainers and Brexiters suggest a similar pattern on this side of the Atlantic. And, as the Carl Beech case reveals, it’s not just the uneducated who promote irrational conspiracy theories.
Education is a good but is, in itself, no insurance against cognitive bias, nor a shield against a tendency to jump to conclusions unwarranted by the facts. Yet, so deep-seated are prejudices about the uneducated masses that many prominent figures, from biologist Richard Dawkins to philosopher Jason Brennan, have called for the vote to be confined to the better informed.
What does all this have to do with the retweeting debate? There are real issues to be addressed about how information sharing can lead to Twitter mobs, fake news and online hate. But the debate also expresses deeper anxieties about allowing people too much sway. ‘I remember specifically one day thinking of that phrase: we put power in the hands of people,’ Wetherell observes. ‘But now, what if you just say it slightly differently: oh no, we put power into the hands of people.’
It’s a fear that has leached from politics into technology. Where once we were enamoured of democracy, now many panic about its consequences. And where once many lauded technology as empowering people, now that is precisely what many fear.
‘Audiences that regularly amplify awful posts,’ Wetherell suggests, should be suspended or banned from platforms. This is the technological equivalent of restricting the franchise. And it’s already happening. From laws enforcing takedowns of fake news to bans on those promoting unpalatable ideas, such restrictions have become the norm.
The problems of Twitter mobs and fake news are real. As are the issues raised by populism and anti-migrant hostility. But neither in technology nor in society will we solve any problem by beginning with the thought: ‘Oh no, we put power into the hands of people.’ Retweeting won’t ruin the world. Constraining democracy may well do.
I’m going to cut this comment down into manageable chunks and have another go:
I’ve been on the planet for almost seven decades now. When I was three years old, my lower-middle-class parents bought a television, in order to watch the Coronation, as many other people did. The TV was small and deep, the image monochrome, and it took several minutes to ‘warm up’. I now have a large, flat television, with a high-definition colour image. It will record several things at the same time, it will pause and rewind, it sends my viewing data back to the provider and broadcasters, its delivery is by fibre-optic cable rather than by electromagnetic transmission, and it can probably be switched on and off by somebody in a call centre in South Asia. About the only similarity between it and the television I sat in front of as a child is that it still takes time to ‘warm up’.
No matter where I get my news, I am aware of one important fact: news is not reported, it is narrated. There is no ‘provision/provider of edited information’ (PEI from now on, as I use this term, rather pedantically, instead of ‘news medium’) that is not subject to another agenda beyond the dissemination of information. It is tailored, it is all tailored, to attract and hold the attention. It is tailored to a set of priorities which may or may not be actual priorities – Boris Johnson may say something trivial, but his statement will have precedence over the death of an unknown child, no matter what that death might be indicative of. It is tailored to suit the cognitive bias, or indeed the deliberate bias of the owner. It is tailored to suit the biases of the target audience or, worse, to manipulate those biases. This is true of the fast-fading media of radio and TV, of newspapers, as it is of the wonderful world of the web, with its PEI sites and Twitter feeds. It matters nothing that I tend to watch BBC, Sky, CNN, and Al Jazeera English, that I log on to the Guardian, Telegraph, and Freedom sites, that I follow News Agencies on Twitter – I will always KNOW that I am not getting the whole picture. But then, I never did (pace John Sergeant).
Back in 2016 I attended an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at which Richard and Daniel Susskind – both academics, ‘experts’, advisors to professional bodies, corporations, governments, and ‘the great’ – discussed their book ‘The Future of Professions’. The thrust of their message was that their own days were numbered, as ‘systems’ become increasingly capable, algorithms faster and more adept at recognising patterns within information, and that they will not parallel but overtake the work of the professional. The Susskinds pointed out that, for example, there were already more visits to WebMD in the USA than walk-ins to general practitioners. Perhaps that’s not a particularly surprising point, given that healthcare is damned expensive in the States, but still, it make you think!
I asked the Susskinds what would replace the ‘expert’. Their answer was that it would be the “community of experience.” As they explained it, and as I imagined, that would be tantamount to a kind of mega-forum in which, say, sufferers from a particular condition would recognise symptoms and what gave relief for them from the very fact that contributions amass that refer to them. But what if they’re wrong? What if they only seem to be right, and their perpetuation stifles research into a better answer? I recalled the number of times an internet search brought up an answer on AskJeeves or some such that was plain damned wrong, and the response was, “Gee thanks, I’m going to use that in my High School project!” (As you say, “the greater spread of misinformation.”)
I can see parallels in what you say about the world of the retweet. Look at it in one sense, a retweet is just a thing, just like my two televisions are a thing, and the information they provide equally (un)reliable. Are we actually “a more polarized society” or does the technology simply make us more aware of the polarisation that has always been there? I recognise attitudes in my right-leaning, working-class friends on Facebook that I first came across in the 1960s; ditto my left-leaning, middle-class friends. Isn’t it rather the case that there have been a relatively small handful of clearly polarised issues lately, and this has brought the polarisation to our attention more than it might have done? Take the closeness of the poll on leaving the EU; I made a contribution yesterday to a comment thread, to the effect that if the result had been, say, 60:40 either way, we would not be having the discussion at all.
Confining the vote to the better informed:
The problem is not that the ignorant choose our leaders, but that we have an abrogatory system at all. The problem is not that we choose, it is the whole concept of leaders. The year before I had listened to the Susskinds, I attended an event where the speaker was Professor Erik Swyngedouw. He said something very interesting, to the effect that democracy disappears the moment that the seat of power is occupied. We call – barefacedly – the system we have ‘democracy’, despite the fact that it routinely fails two out of three of Abraham Lincoln’s basic definitions: government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Certainly we have “government of the people,” but any polity has that, even the rankest dictatorship. We do not have government “by the people,” but by a select caste of professional technocrat-managers; even if the amateur johnnies in the Brexit party get into parliament, they will soon find themselves molded according to the existing template. We do not have government “for the people,” but government for the benefit of large corporations, certainly for the past forty years. Our only remotely democratic input is the right to put an X on a piece of paper once every four or five years; that is why I refer to our system as “abrogatory” rather than democratic.
If ‘educating’ the ignorant to being able to make a more informed choice of leader (read: “vote the way we would rather they voted”) is such a non-starter, the only answer would seem to lie in devolving and devolving and devolving, until we have a set up which more resembles a confederacy of cooperating local units, within which every member is entitled to an equal voice in matters in which they are directly concerned and therefore less likely to be ignorant and more likely to be capable; there is nothing like being given the right to make decisions for educating people in decision-making! Something like the late Murray Bookchin’s “Libertarian Municipalism.” Of course it would all be a lot more complex in the setting up – we would have to kiss goodbye to money, to political parties, to private (NOT personal) property, to the idea of the State – but suddenly it’s beginning to sound attractive. It would, if nothing else, give people less time for Twitter.