Why are so many people so awful towards other people on Twitter? How can there be this massive gap between how people conduct themselves on Twitter and in real life? I've always found fascinating how our brains work, and I was sure there would be good answers out there.
I've read a few books and articles on social media issues lately, but I didn't find clear answers until I grabbed Social Warming, by Charles Arthur. A recurring problem with many books is that they provide plenty of examples and evidence, but they don't explain the science or existing research. This book covers both; it's a joy to read and includes insights about this particular concern and many others.
This book references an article titled Moral outrage in the digital age by Molly Crocket. "Moral outrage" is the emotion you feel when you see something that breaks with your emotional norms. It's an essential mechanism in a tribal society: someone that provokes enough of it will be cast out and put at risk of starvation or predators. It's a stabilization mechanism for groups of humans, even if they leave them upset. You can see a video where the author elaborates on this subject here.
And this is when things get interesting: before the internet, our very limited personal networks were the ones dictating who could be trusted. With social networks, we are essentially in contact with everyone alive. The result is an explosion of opportunities to trigger moral outrage in a way nature never anticipated.
This is recurring in humans: something primitive in our brains doesn't play well with modern life. For example, eating as much as you can when finding food is good for surviving in a food-deprived environment, such as nature, but not so good at home with the fridge a few meters away.
Crocket found something that makes things worse: people reported experiencing or seeing more violations of moral rules online than in real life or in traditional media. More interestingly, the reaction to those violations was far stronger online than in-person. She points out two reasons: first, it's easier to come across something surprising online than in your everyday life; and second, being outraged online is easy and consequence-free.
And remember, this is coded in our human genes, whether we want it or not. So even if there is no need to eject people from our tribe today, moral outrage provokes something profound in our psyche, and we feel the impulse to call it out. And similarly, we are more likely to share content that has an element of moral outrage. As the book says:
We can emphasize our purity by saying, 'Look at this, it's appalling'!
Does that pattern ring a bell?
Now, combine this with sophisticated algorithms which notice what people like to share and serve that. What you get is the ultimate polarization machine. The book uses the term "scissor statement" (coined by Scott Alexander in 2018): statements that cut people into two groups, one on each side, without room for equivocation:
Scissor statements are often simple to frame ... But they're also impossible to prove. In scientific and logical terms, they're axioms - statements that you must treat as inherently either true or false. If you try to dig deeper into the logic, you'll hit a bedrock of belief that is summed up as "because I said so!"
I loved learning about the term "scissor statement". I now know how to refer to the many axioms you must accept without thinking or questioning unless you are willing to risk being ejected from whatever tribe holds them.
The primitive-brain component also explains the incongruences I constantly see in Twitter regarding moral. I want to believe that most people insulting, shaming, and humiliating others on Twitter believe that bullying is terrible in the real world or that workplace harassment is unacceptable, no matter how much they dislike the victim. And yet here they are, doing exactly that to other fellow human beings, laughing and cheering their beers while holding the torch on the other hand. It doesn't make sense unless you are a truly horrible person, and I don't think most people are. But it doesn't have to make sense because it's not rational; it's instinctual.
One size for all
The book points out another trait of these outrages: they all have a similar size:
Whether it was a US president declaring war on a foreign country, or an actor not wearing the proper shade of a designated colour to an awards ceremony. On Twitter those problems become exactly the same size.
The fact that there is an abominable war going on as I write this makes this example even more evident. The first Twitter storms happened in extreme cases that provoked universal repulsion. Now, a mere intellectual disagreement can trigger them at full speed, typically after linking the dispute through a series of jumps to one of those scissor axioms. Again, the disproportion doesn't make sense, but it doesn't have to! We are moving in the irrational sphere of tribes drawing their boundaries in unnatural ways.
Your health and their goals
If anything, I hope this resonates with some people. Frequent outrages translate into being permanently angry, which is terrible for your mental and physical health, especially long-term. Social networks creators design them to encourage and make you succumb to these instincts so that they can profit. Your goals probably include being happy and healthy, while their goals include getting you engaged and showing you ads. It's a mismatch by design since social networks will never sacrifice virality on behalf of your well-being.
The possibility of long-term health consequences is scary. The first humans that ate themselves to death because they had access to endless food didn't have a clue. Do we know what being tribally outraged frequently and in a non-natural way can do to your mind and body? Al least we know what overexposure to cortisol does to your body, and it is no bueno.
I see modern Twitter as such a dark place that I am interested in distilling the reasons that make it so, considering it has 400 million users. I already knew it was a great way to waste time (a minor sin), that it made me feel negative emotions, and that it was an addictive dopamine dispenser. Now I learned about another scientifically proven facet: it makes you angry and meaner towards other humans. What a wonderful product, huh? A net win for humanity.
I wonder if, eventually, these problems will be generally accepted and acted on. Maybe some regulation will make social networks show a banner warning about them, like in a cigarette pack. Or perhaps some healthy alternative appears that addresses these concerns and makes current Twitter look out of fashion. And, one can dream, future people might think that cyber-yelling something cruel or derogatory about another person is incorrect and socially unacceptable, just as it is in real life.