How Twitter promotes authoritarianism

There are several structural issues with Twitter, and other social networks, that encourage authoritarianism. The tendencies are encouraged by the nature of the medium, independent of ideology, and serve as a potential cause for the acceleration of political and social polarization.

The harm posed by social networks is not merely in enabling existing authoritarians, but in encouraging others to internalize and reenact the authoritarian mindset. This mindset may have effects on interpersonal communication offline, as well as online.

The structural defects are as follows:

Enforcing brevity promotes status quo beliefs, producing barriers to one changing their mind.

You can say what everyone agrees with in a few words, but making an argument necessarily takes a greater number. As a result, the medium itself encourages the propagation of trivialities or ostensible disagreements intended to shock.

Ask yourself: How often do you find yourself unable to express your true meaning, given uncompromising length restrictions?

Likes and retweets provide social reinforcement for views without the benefit of nuance.

Liking and retweeting are binary actions. Unlike ordinary communication of agreement, they offer no context or explanation as to the reason for agreement. You don’t know whether another person’s agreement is illusory, based on misunderstanding, or is otherwise conditional.

Ask yourself: How many times have you liked or retweeted something that you were ambivalent or unsure about?

A message that receives a large number of likes and retweets promotes further likes and retweets, independent of its substance or author, encouraging groupthink.

Ask yourself: Are you more likely to ‘like’ something if it has already received many likes? Is the fact it’s well-liked relevant to the message itself?

The concept of followers itself promotes a devaluation of substantiative content, encouraging authorities to develop and focus on developing their persona or “brand”.

Ask yourself: Do you follow people because you like them personally, independent of what they actually share? Do you find yourself sharing something not because you agree or disagree, but because you like their persona? Do you share something not because you approve, but think your own audience will?

A person’s number of followers, independent of personality or content, encourages others to follow them, promoting the development of cults.

Ask yourself: Do you find yourself more likely to follow someone on the basis of their number of followers? Why should a person’s number of followers matter?

Follower lists balkanize agreement and dissent.

Ask yourself: What proportion of your followers do you regularly agree with? Does your follow list simply constitute a custom-tailored echo chamber?

These defects are intrinsic to the medium, not exceptional.

These qualities are bad enough, but become even more pernicious if one uses Twitter frequently and throughout the day. Then it becomes a training program for reinforcing those tendencies that are among the worst in human nature.