Before Christmas, the Times columnist Alex Massie tweeted that refusing to have friends who have different opinions to your own is “small-minded not principled”. This provoked an tiny-minded torrent of hostile posts from twitterites insisting that they couldn’t possibly be friends with “Tory racists”.
Said one: “I’m not hanging around with people who would see me suffer at the hands of actual eugenicists in the Tory Party”. Said another: “I don’t want friends that want children to starve to death so the rich can get richer”.
These attitudes are widespread on social media, and people actually believe them. “Tory policies kill vulnerable people, that is an indisputable fact”, said one, “vote Tory and you are complicit”.
Another said without a hint of self-awareness: “I don’t have anything to do with right-wingers and Tories and that makes me a better person”. The left on Twitter genuinely believe that “austerity killed 120,000 people”, and that Conservative voters are racist bigots.
You literally can’t argue with this. Anyway, freedom of speech is now seen as inherently right wing on social media. It is dismissed as “white privilege” a phrase that is as silly as it is rebarbative.
Twitter has been fatal for the left. It was a major factor in the defeat of Labour at the election. Labour MPs and activists, and like-minded journalists, spent their time on Twitter congratulating themselves on how progressive they are instead of asking what voters were thinking.
I can sympathise to an extent. Twitter is as addictive as alcohol and harder to give up. I can go for months without a drink, but I can’t seem to go a day without looking at Twitter, the social media site populated by journalists and political activists.
No more. I’m determined to kick the social media habit. Not an easy task since I have to push my columns across Twitter as part of my work. I have 55,000 followers as well. I’ve no idea who most of them are, or what they think, because they’re generally not the people who reply to my posts.
The responses I get are often abusive taunts from angry Scottish nationalists claiming that I’m paid by the “Yoon” Herald to do down Scotland and the SNP. Many of the rest are from the sneery, jeery activist class of keyboard warriors who spend their time trawling twitter for something to be offended by.
Professional anti-racists are the worst. If you criticise a BAME MP, mention immigration, or point out that Britain is becoming more racially tolerant, you become the target of venomous accusations of racism or, that sinister term, “adjacency”.
I increasingly get dismissed by these people as an “old white male”, without a trace of irony. They seem oblivious to the fact that this is itself both racist, ageist and sexist. Imagine if I started calling Dianne Abbott a “stupid old black woman”?
Time was when you could have interesting discussions about politics, economics, art, films on Twitter. But it is increasingly difficult to contain any discussion. It immediately gets hijacked by agenda-driven interlopers who want to reduce everything to an ideological row. (And yes, maybe I’ve been guilty of that too in the past).
The fun has also drained out of Twitter as literalism has overwhelmed it. Jokes are now impossible unless they are in the style of: “Boris Johnson is a cnut. RT if you agree”. On social media you can’t afford ambiguity, or irony. The title of this column, for example, would be taken to mean that I am a card-carrying supporter of Boris Johnson.
On Twitter everything is black or white and there must under no circumstances be a hint of grey. Yet for all the virtue-signalling and self-righteous moralising, the chief characteristic of Twitter remains toxic abuse.
Much of it is directed at women, especially if they are “terfs” who don’t subscribe to the dogma that Transwomen are Women. But really anyone who spends any time on the site will come under assault. Twitter is an equal opportunities madhouse.
So, if I find it so problematic, why do I keep going back to it, like a dog to its own sick? Well, it is an invaluable news wire, for one. On general election night, for example, it allows you to be live at every count in Scotland.
Twitter is nearly always first with the news, even if the news is wrong. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, attracted a torrent of abuse during the election campaign when she tweeted that a Tory special adviser had been “punched” by Labour protesters outside Leeds General Infirmary. He hadn’t. She corrected it immediately, but it has since gone down as proof positive of “Tory bias” at the BBC .
It is very easy to spread fake news on Twitter. During the election campaign, I retweeted a post which I thought had come from the BBC announcing that Ms Kuenssberg was going to interview Boris Johnson instead of Andrew Neil. “Disgrace”, I said. The BBC had caved in to the PM and given him a softer interviewer. I was mortified when I realised it was a fake. I apologised publicly. Sometimes I feel like apologising for everything I’ve ever said on Twitter.
The BBC is now considering banning political journalists from Twitter because of the blowback. It’s getting out of hand. Anyone connected with the hated “MSM”, short for mainstream media, is accused of compulsive lying, intellectual dishonesty, or pandering to the right.
During the general election Labour and Remain activists more or less colonised Twitter, and turned the place into an inquisition. Anyone failing to agree that Boris Johnson is a lying crypto-fascist, financed by dark money, who beats his wife was liable to be condemned by “pile on”. That is the social media term for hyperbolic rubbishing by legions of hostile posts.
On Twitter, the strength of an argument is irrelevant, all that matters is how often something is repeated, however stupid or meretricious. It’s an absurd way to conduct debate – more like a school playground than a forum for political discourse.
Confirmation bias is the bane of social media. Academics have become fatally compromised by Twitter, because they only hear their views repeated to them with approbation. Their egos get inflated by likes and retweets which they mistake for intellectual authority.
Last year, Twitter’s legion of legal experts were certain that Boris Johnson could never get the EU Withdrawal Deal reopened last year. Can’t be done. No time. EU won’t allow it. Irish Backstop is inviolable. Then, in November, after a deal with Leo Varadkar, the EU did reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, and a new deal was struck within a month. Did any of them reflect this in their Twitter time lines? Not that I saw.
Most of us are now aware of “filter bubbles” – how social media curates your “feed” so that as time goes on you see only people with the same prejudices you have. I’ve tried correcting this algorithmic brain washing, but without success. No matter how much I mute and unfollow I still see the same people making the same empty-headed condemnations of their political opponents. The same lame memes. The same dodgy statistics.
As a result, Twitter has, for me, become a kind of anti-filter bubble. Instead of confirming me in my political beliefs, the constant exposure to hyper-partisan reflections of them has started to work in reverse. It is a kind of aversion therapy. A Remain-supporting lefty Yesser, I now bristle when I see Tories, Brexiteers and Unionists being portrayed as racists and idiots. I find the behaviour of the left on Twitter utterly repellent.
I really can’t go on exposing myself to this, not because these arguments blinker me to alternative views, but because they don’t. If I am to retain my broad faith in progressive politics, and self-government for Scotland, then abstention is the only option. I need to switch off Twitter before it turns me Tory.
(A version of this column appeared in the Herald on Sunday)