How Social Media Forges False Consensus and Erodes Our Public Discourse

Plus: an online event with me about the past and future of Jewish life

There is no better demonstration of how social media dumbs down our discourse and frequently turns it into a sewer of misinformation and misanthropy than Twitter’s Trending Topics bar. Ostensibly a collation of whatever users are talking about at the moment, it actually serves as an excellent illustration of how the platform indulges humanity’s worst instincts. One could write an entire piece about this, but sometimes, humor is a more effective teacher than critical commentary:

That said, there are some issues that require more in-depth discussion than even memes can provide. To tackle that part of the social media conversation, I did a Q&A with Graham Vyse at The Signal about how Twitter has a tendency to forge the false appearance of consensus among elites, and thus make it harder for them and ordinary people to challenge preconceptions and uncover the truth.

If you’re wondering why so many smart thinkers and journalists have been wrong on so many big things in recent years—from the viability of Trump’s 2016 candidacy, to the origins and virulence of the coronavirus, to the strength of Biden’s 2020 campaign—understanding Twitter’s role is a big piece of the puzzle.

The whole thing is behind a paywall, but here are a few snippets to whet your appetite:

What we’ve seen over the past four years or so, coinciding with the Trump administration, is a greater recognition of social media’s negative effects. I often see Twitter, not creating problems but intensifying preexisting human tendencies. It’s not that Twitter created the tendency to forge a false consensus based on social pressures among elites, for example. It’s just that Twitter made it a lot easier to do it, enforce it, and raise the cost for dissenting from the popular consensus on a given issue.

…It’s well understood by media critics like Jack Shafer and Ben Smith that journalists are social creatures who exist at journalistic outlets and in journalistic communities where they’re influenced by their peers and the prevailing narratives. If you’re writing about a particular topic in your newspaper, you have to write in such a way that your editor will like, publish, and hopefully promote you. This incentivizes covering issues in the exact same way as the last people who did it. Similarly, if all the journalists at cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., are talking about issues in a particular way, there are particular grooves in which conversation will go.

But your ability to see things sometimes comes from distance. I’ve looked back on some of the bigger misses in my political prognostication on, say, Israeli politics, and almost always they were because I was too plugged in to what journalists were saying.

Those dynamics all predated Twitter. You could, in theory, disconnect yourself— geographically and otherwise—from the consensus in the past, but now everybody is on Twitter, and Twitter is the consensus. It influences what you think and what you feel you can and can’t say. It becomes this mass socialization mechanism for journalists. That’s how you end up with all sorts of ill effects and big misses.

One instance of a faux consensus fostered by Twitter about the Jewish community:

Another example of false consensus comes from my own area of expertise: on Twitter, Jews who are anti-Zionist—by which I mean Jews who are critical of Israel’s existence, not Jews who are critical of its policies—are vastly overrepresented compared to their numbers in the real world Jewish community and the data we see in surveys. So if you are a well-meaning non-Jew attempting to understand what Jews think about Israel, and why they might think it’s important, you will be largely misled if you get most of your information from Twitter.

On how more information is not necessarily better information:

Twitter enables certain events to be followed more closely and granularly, but also much less accurately. When you’re getting a firehose of information from a mass shooting or war zone—and there isn’t a journalist or anybody professional vetting the information, contextualizing it, and figuring out what’s authentic and what’s being misrepresented and propagandized—you can be misinformed while thinking you’re more informed.

What the real problem is when journalists tweet:

Twitter encourages us to comment on everything going on, whether or not we know anything about it. The real issue isn’t journalists tweeting about their areas of expertise but rather journalists tweeting about things they’re not experts about. If you get exposed for not knowing what you’re talking about, that inevitably is used to discredit good work you’ve done.

Why it’s bad that we’ve yoked our public discourse to Twitter, and why it’s time to consider breaking the habit:

Twitter is structurally resistant to nuance and complex thinking, because it only allows you to say something in 280 characters. Of course you can add another tweet to your thread, but someone might not see that one. Because tweets are designed to be pithy, it’s hard to fit in competing ideas and wrestling with them. It’s not just true of Twitter. You don’t have much opportunity to do it in an Instagram caption or on TikTok either. It can be done, but you’re fighting the platform itself to do it. I always say there’s a reason that someone like Donald Trump, who never had a complex thought in his entire life, loved Twitter so much.

Vyse: But you’re saying that this online platform where so much elite conversation about politics and journalism is taking place—which probably shapes journalism coverage more than any other platform—is “structurally resistant to nuance and complex thinking”?

Rosenberg: It was necessary for all those elites to be plugged into Twitter 24-7 for the four years from 2016 to 2020. The person governing their country—the most powerful person in the world—was plugged into Twitter. That required us to be there and pay attention to everything he said. Now that he’s not there anymore, people need to consider whether we should unplug. We can start thinking about whether this is the place we want to have our public civil discourse and highest-level discussions.

We’re really having a conversation about linguistics. The core insight of linguistics as a field is that the way language is constructed—the way people talk and express themselves—affects how they perceive and think about themselves. Twitter is an idiom. It’s a way of talking, with specific rules and limits like any other language. It affects our self-perception and how we live our lives and shape our society, but no one has really deconstructed it.

There a lot more in the full Q&A at The Signal, for those inclined to subscribe or sign up for their free daily digest that features conversations like these. And, straight from today’s headlines, here’s another interesting example of how social media distorts our perceptions of other people’s opinions:

One way that I’m able to buck the consensus when necessary is knowing that I have the support of readers like you, regardless of what anyone on Twitter or elsewhere might say. As always, if you’d like to foster this work, you can do so here by signing up or upgrading your subscription:

Upcoming Event

On Thursday evening at 8pm Eastern, I’ll be participating in an online panel discussion about Upheaval, a new documentary about former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, which you can stream here. While the starting point will be the film, the plan is to use its themes as a springboard to discuss some very contemporary issues, from the abiding reality of antisemitism to the fate of Zionism. We’ll also be taking some questions from the audience. Those interested can RSVP for free here.

Well, this is awkward

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