Image by ijmaki from Pixabay
Ifan Morgan Jones
Yesterday, after another round of falling out on Twitter, the always sensible and level-headed YesCymru chairman Siôn Jobbins was moved to say: “It may be a good idea for us to take a break from social media.”
I don’t quite agree that the national movement should take a break from all social media, as (in the absence of a strong Welsh mainstream media) it remains the most effective way of reaching a new and receptive audience.
However, I’d certainly agree with Siôn that the national movement needs to take a break from Twitter – or, at least, from engaging in any heated arguments about the national movement on Twitter.
Twitter no doubt has its uses, particularly as a medium to follow the latest news on an issue. If you tap into the right networks, particular inside information will bubble to the surface very quickly.
It has also been the platform of choice for the Welsh national movement. It has played a big and helpful part in allowing people who believed in Welsh independence to discover each other and work together.
It’s also true that because there are a large number of journalists, politicians, lobbyists, civil servants and others on Twitter, it can be a very effective tool for reaching those in the Welsh political bubble and changing their minds on independence.
However, the first problem with Twitter is that it is exactly that – a political bubble.
On Twitter, people tend to follow each other because they agree with each other’s political points of view, or at least find them interesting.
And the dopamine hit of likes and retweets means that we all tend to default to saying what we think our cloud of followers want to hear, and are afraid to voice divergent opinions in case we provoke the dreaded ‘pile on’!
Facebook, in comparison, has its echo chambers but is far less of a bubble than Twitter.
On Facebook, people follow their friends. It means that someone sharing content on Facebook is much more likely to reach a new audience than on Twitter.
I’ve seen this to be the case on Nation.Cymru’s Facebook page – which drives three times more traffic than Twitter but also reaches different people all the time.
Every time an article is posted, someone will like it who has never liked a Nation.Cymru post before.
There seem to be far fewer YesCymru Facebook groups, however, and they seem to be far quieter, than the over 90 YesCymru accounts on Twitter.
These accounts are problematic in themselves because they tend to be run by one (often anonymous) individual, unvetted under the name of a ‘branch’.
They can often become bully pulpits for that individual who will claim the authority of that ‘branch’, who may just be that individual, to spout authoritatively on the issues of the day.
YesCymru is supposed to be a cross-party movement but a quick look at the output of these accounts will show that they retweet a large amount of a) content nothing to do with independence b) party political content, c) content unrepresentative of the views of most members.
I’ve even seen YesCymru Twitter accounts get into arguments with each other, which isn’t a good look for any movement.
Not perfect, but much better are Facebook groups, where the conversation is tempered by a comparative lack of anonymity and the fact that most of the branch members meet regularly and get on well with each other.
This is only the start of the problems with Twitter, however. The real problem is that it’s completely useless as a means of changing anyone’s mind on anything.
This is unfortunately inherent to the medium. Because of the brevity of the messages, Twitter is a completely useless forum for political discussions. Arguments that couldn’t be resolved in 10,000 academic papers play out in two-sentence messages.
The brevity of the messages means two things:
- There’s no room to back up an argument up with any kind of evidence or discuss the wider context.
- There’s no room to include polite social behaviour.
Point i) means that Twitter discussions inevitably descend into arguments not about what was said but what was not said. A user will overreact to some meaning or context in a message that isn’t there, or will simply misread the message completely, and you’ll spend the next hour or so trying to clear up one misunderstanding but end up creating new ones.
But point ii) is the worst because it means that Twitter dehumanises us. It’s easy to forget that behind the words on the screen and little profile picture is a real human being on whom our words have a real effect.
The best way to come to change someone’s mind is what has been called the ‘truth sandwich’. First, you agree with some point that your political opponent has made. This makes them lower their defences and makes them more open to what you have to say. Then you deliver your own POV that differs from their own, to which they will be more receptive, and then close by suggesting a possible compromise.
Inch by inch, this trail of truth sandwiches shifts people’s views closer to your own (and if used by others, will open your own eyes more effectively to different viewpoints too).
There’s no room on Twitter for a truth sandwich. Steps one and three is missing. You state your own argument, and then press ‘send Tweet’.
And the person receiving the message, rather than thinking ‘do I agree with this message’ interprets it as an attack on one’s own views and thinks ‘how do I point out the flaws in this argument’?
People just don’t listen to each other on Twitter – they spar. This is sometimes sport but mostly exhausting.
As a result of the inherent brusqueness of the medium, a number of people I know are loving, caring and kind, and whom I can have an amicable discussion within the real world come across as obstinate and rude on Twitter. Myself included.
I have written plenty on Twitter in the heat of an argument, only to look back at it days or weeks later and realise it makes me seem like a complete arse.
I’ve never seen anyone ‘win’ an argument on Twitter. Discussions simply come to an end because one person loses the will to continue, and probably their faith in humanity along the way. This usually happens because the other side of the argument has called in reinforcements, who will pile in until the victim is exhausted.
No minds are changed, and in fact, the resolve of both sides that they are ‘right’ is probably strengthened by hate towards the other point of view. Now, it’s personal.
Beyond ruining the mental health of everyone involved, and further polarising our political discourse, these Twitter arguments serve no purpose at all.
In a society where we are increasingly valuing mental as much as physical health, we need to realise that through this kind of interaction we’re doing real damage to each other.
Twitter’s other problem is that a handful of politically extreme but noisy people create a very distorted impression of what mainstream views are within the movement.
If the latest polls are to be believed, some 800,000 people now support Welsh independence. What one sees on Twitter however is the same 10-20 people falling out ad nauseam.
Inevitably, the most extreme views within the movement get the most attention and that gives the impression that these extreme views dominate.
This is what is called ‘nutpicking’ – the tendency to presume that an extreme view voiced by one or a handful of people in the movement is representative of the whole.
If I listened to some on the left, the movement is full of fascists. Those on the right suggest it has been taken over by the KGB’s thought police.
Twitter creates the impression that there is a gaping ravine at the heart of the movement on some issues when in fact there’s broad consensus other than one or two very loud people whose views are inevitably brought to the fore by endless angry replies and quote tweets.
However, if you suggest that this is the case you’re accused of ignoring or turning a blind eye to an issue. But it isn’t about ignoring or tolerating problematic points of view.
It is rather, on my part at least, a conscious realisation that screaming at each other at social media won’t solve anything, and is much more likely to harden opinions and make things worse.
When problematic views do exist in the mainstream, most people are simply ignorant of the issues and could be brought around over a cup of coffee.
No one is at fault for the above problems. They are are all problems inherent to the medium of Twitter. It is a flawed way of discussing political issues.
While sometimes entertaining, and handy as a source of breaking news, it is ultimately a medium that monotises anger and misunderstanding.
At the end of last year, I suggested a New Year’s Resolution for the Welsh national movement – to spend less time arguing online and more time getting to know each other in the real world.
We have certainly done that. As the independence marches in Cardiff, Caernarfon and Merthyr Tydfil have shown, we are out our best when we come together and meet up face to face.
This doesn’t mean ignoring political issues which divide us but discussing them in a social and amicable manner.
The juxtaposition between the joy of these social interactions and the hate on Twitter – often when interacting with the same people! – couldn’t be starker.
There is much more that unites us than divides us. We all want what is best for each other.
For our own good and the good of the movement, we need to come together offline and start to understand our different points of view and work towards a greater understanding.