Politics & Policy

Fear, Loathing, and the Twitter Insta-Mob

(Illustration/Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
A word of advice to journalists everywhere: It's time to log off.

Last Saturday night, seemingly eons ago, deep in the heart of the Texas hill country — a delightful spot with rock-canyon walls where cell-phone service is often dicey or nonexistent — a stray-yet-plucky Washington Post news alert found its way to my otherwise-quiet phone. “MAGA-hat-wearing teenagers who had attended the March for Life surrounded and taunted a Native American elder,” it read. “We spoke with him.”

Credit the fresh air, or perhaps the wide-open spaces, but to me, the headline seemed just a bit too on the nose. I did not see a video; I did not view the now-infamous “smirking MAGA teenager” screenshot. I had only a headline to read. “I don’t know,” I said to my husband. “But this seems like it could be one of those stories ginned up by a Twitter mob.”

I could have been wrong. As it turns out, I was right. Since Saturday night, the Washington Post’s one-sided version of events — made viral by a bloodthirsty Twitter frenzy — has largely unraveled. It turns out the story is far more complicated than it was initially made to seem. Oh, well: Sorry to single you out, kids! Too bad about the death threats! I mean, what high-schooler hasn’t had the producer of Beauty and the Beast tell the world via social media that they should be immediately fed into a woodchipper?

Here I present a mystery: If a columnist idly comments on the news in a forest, as opposed to instantly broadcasting her knee-jerk, gut reaction to the world via Twitter — something no one should ever do, but we’ll get to that in a bit — does it even make a sound? Elsewhere, out in the digital distance, an alarming percentage of our chattering class spent Saturday industriously diving headfirst into a fact-deprived, wild-eyed online rage mob. As a nation, we’re still cleaning up the factual wreckage.

While there are many potential explanations for this media debacle, one should seem almost screamingly obvious: Twitter.

Media mistakes, and even media dishonesty, are nothing new. But this type of story — complete with a short video clip and screenshot perfectly calibrated to confirm one side’s ideological biases — was tailor-made for the land of the retweet. Without Twitter, this frenzied display of snap judgments and public shaming would probably have vaporized before it was even a twinkle in a writer’s eye.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Twitter is a disastrous scourge, which is particularly unfortunate given that a large bulk of the nation’s media is hopelessly addicted to Twitter. It is a great carbuncled pixel-based den of rumors, as bleak as one of those depressing old Wilfred Owen poems about the Great War. Also, don’t look now, but it may or may not be destroying our entire civilization from within.

With this in mind, I have a suggestion: Each and every responsible member of the media should immediately and dramatically declare a Twitter strike, preferably while wearing a monocle.

“Oh, come on, Heather,” you might be thinking. “People can be jerks, with or without Twitter. That’s human nature! For millennia, people have periodically been incited to mob-based action by shenanigans and fakery. You’re just a Luddite! Besides, I need Twitter to boost my career, even though it will likely one day lead to my being publicly shamed and cast out of society entirely. Also, it might be melting my brain.”

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First things first: You’re right! Twitter is melting your brain. Also, I am kind of a Luddite. I’m still not really even sure how to use Venmo, and I’m not just feigning incompetence in order to avoid paying for my own movie tickets on girls’ night out.

I will admit that my stance on Twitter — I quit last year, creeping back to visit once in a blue moon, always to my regret — makes me feel a bit old-fashioned, like the craggy old turn-of-the-century buggy-maker appalled at the arrival of those newfangled horseless carriages. But Twitter is no ordinary horseless carriage. It is a media-filled monster truck specifically designed to veer out of control, taking loads of clueless, gimlet-eyed journalists right over the edge of a cliff. Say what you will about the consistency of human nature — and believe me, I’m a believer in the fallen state of both humanity and the world — but Twitter is literally designed to amplify the worst in us. That’s its deal: mob action, viral groupthink, reality distortion, and outrage in exchange for hits of dopamine.

Most Twitter users know this, but it’s hard to fight city hall. After all, everyone else is on Twitter, too. It’s the only way to stay relevant! Many conservatives, moreover, valiantly argue that they must stay on Twitter to soldier on in the battle of ideas, lest this valuable intellectual arena be lost entirely to the progressive Left. I might be convinced by this if Twitter weren’t already literally run by leftists who suspended a parody account poking fun at Beto O’Rourke while letting left-leaning woodchipper enthusiasts run free.

This argument would also make sense if anyone’s mind was ever actually changed by something they read on Twitter, or if it were actually a place where lessons were ever learned. Undaunted by the debunking of her preferred narrative in the great high-schooler shaming of 2019, the actress Alyssa Milano recently told her 3.5 million followers that the story was essentially fake but accurate: “This entire event happened because a group of boys went on a school-sanctioned trip to protest against a women’s [sic] right to her own body and reproductive healthcare. It is not debatable that bigotry was at play from the start,” she wrote.

Ah. Welcome to Twitter, folks. Good luck logically arguing with that.

Heather Wilhelm is a columnist for National Review. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, RealClearPolitics, the Washington Examiner, Commentary magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Kansas City Star


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