1. Copernican revolutions
Changing people’s minds is a hard, hard thing. When Copernicus correctly identified our heliocentric solar system, it was not an overnight “revolution” as it is often characterised, but the culmination of over a thousand years of observations not matching the dominant model. The Ptolemaic model lasted from the 2nd century to the 16th. All the observations, all the maths, were telling scientists that their paradigm was wrong. Geocentric astronomy was the “fake Facebook news” of its day. Copernicus simply made the mathematical model match the observations. Even so, his “revolution” did not lead to an overnight change in the dominant paradigm. Copernicus died 20 years before Galileo, who was still persecuted (albeit for political reasons) when he used his observations to confirm Copernicus’ work. It wasn’t until 100 years after Galileo’s death that the Church lifted the ban on books advocating heliocentrism.
So much for your overnight revolutions.
2. Not feeding the trolls
The lesson that people’s minds are hard to change was learnt – with difficulty – in the first years of the public internet and World Wide Web, when forum and chat room moderators first encountered trolling, flame wars, and Godwin’s Law, which asserts that,
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1“
So it went and so it goes. Whether you’re in a 1994 vintage AOL chatroom, or on The Facebook or the Twitter, you will encounter people who are immune to the figurative Copernican maths. Immune to the facts, or science, statistics, the evidence of their own eyes, or whatever else you care to throw at them.
As Robert M. Pirsig put it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the only way not to lose this fight is not to enter the arena. In other words, don’t feed the trolls – especially the ones that reside in your own head.
3. We built our own dystopia
Over the past 25 years, those online virtual spaces that were once called things like Second Life, have steadily leaked into the so-called real world and become not secondary but primary. Second Life is now just life. Those online flame wars have become modern political discourse. The made-up facts, the agent provocateurs (trolls), the inevitable comparisons to Hitler, the trading of insults and disrespect, have become normalised. The leopards have broken into the temple and have now become part of the ritual.
Back in 2010, when Twitter was young and the Arab Spring was in its early flowering, I was naive enough to believe that Twitter was a potential force for change we could believe in. Obama, against all the perceived wisdom and seemingly against all the odds, had been elected President of the United States. Smug Britons, who were used to casually branding Americans as ignorant racists, were brought up short by the realisation that it was eminently more possible for there to be a black US President than it was for there to be a black British Prime Minister.
And then there were the democratic uprisings across North Africa and in the Arab world, and it seemed as if the people were able to organise themselves more effectively with social media tools, and that the tyrants’ days were numbered. Even here, in the UK, it was apparent that smart protestors could outwit the police and bypass the kettling, by sharing instant information based on tweets and maps. The future was here, the future was a flashmob.
But here’s the thing.
Flashmobs, as conceived by Larry Niven in his short fiction, are dystopian. And the tools that allow students and other citizens to organise protests can be used by everyone, including the nastiest people in the world.
And so – like a monster from the id come to life – an internet troll who starts flame wars and is always, inevitably, compared to Hitler has become the President of the United States. That style of online discourse – driven by anonymity, intolerance, and hate – is now just discourse. And your paradigm, my paradigm, about how politics would be changed by social media, is wrong.
I started to suspect I was wrong in 2010 when – in spite of the economic disaster visited upon the world by the bad actions of the banks – a hard-line neoliberal government was elected in the UK. I knew I was wrong in 2015 when – after five years of malicious cuts to public services and widely publicised suffering – they were re-elected with a proper majority.
And then Brexit, and now Trump.
All of the tweets that shared the suffering of disabled people over the bedroom tax, all of the publicity about cuts to the NHS, or housing benefit, or people being told they were fit for work when they were clearly not: useless. No matter how many times you retweet the fact that thousands of people are depending on food banks: it changes nothing.
It’s not just that you’re living in an echo chamber. It’s that everything you say and do online is a waste of time and energy – and it may even be counterproductive. The people who are doing this to their fellow human beings cannot be made to care. They are conscience free and actually glad to hear that unemployed people are having their benefits cut. They are secretly – and not so secretly – gleeful when the bodies of refugees wash up on beaches. They are full of hate, and they are not listening to your facts about the earth circling the sun. Twitter is just another medium designed to entertain and distract you, like a Soap opera, the news, or Game of Thrones.
4. While Rome burns
Is there an answer? I dunno. I’ve been on the edge of giving up the Twitter, not that I tweet much about politics or expect anything I say to even be seen by most people. (I’m muffled by the algorithms, not important enough to appear in people’s feeds.)
But given what a lot of hot air it all is, I’m suppressing the politics on my feed. Nothing anyone says is going to make me any more left wing than I already am. Nothing you tell me about how awful this government (or Trump) is behaving is going to make my opinion any lower than it already is. What do I do with all the upset and the outrage that these tweets create? I’m as powerless to do anything about Trump’s fascist advisors as I am to fix an earthquake in Italy. It’s just more news, and the ultimate effect is to make me feel helpless. So I’m unfollowing all the political twitterers (most of whom don’t follow me, so no impact there) and muting people who are just upset and angry at the moment and therefore venting a lot.
It takes me back to the last royal jubilee and my feeling that people tweeting about the fucking queen when they clearly hate the monarchy aren’t really helping themselves or the rest of us: giving headspace to your foe is to give them part of yourself.
The only thing that will ever have an impact on the powerful and the wealthy is for people to start smashing things up: not on the internet, but out on the streets. And if that happens there will be gas, batons, firehoses and all the other apparatuses of state oppression, of course there will. Because while they don’t give a shit about people, they do care about property. Which is why smashing it up is the only way to get their attention. Everything else is twittering while Rome burns.