In the aftermath of the 6 January 2020 siege of the US Capitol, the two dominant news stories have been Trump’s impending impeachment and the role of big tech in the public sphere. Shortly after the siege, President Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter and Facebook, while the reputedly conservative platform Parler was removed from nearly all app stores. This has sparked outrage against big tech and conversations about the US law Section 230 are once again in the news.
But, frankly, I would be delighted if we all left social media.
Twitter and Facebook have cheapened the world of ideas. On social media, individuals hope to score likes and retweets by posting witty one-liners and half-baked thoughts. We seem to have forgotten that ideas that can be distilled into 280 characters are almost always superficial. Given how divisive modern political life has become, I believe that we need a return to longform writing.
Historically, essayists have left an indelible impact on society. With the cheapening of ideas that the social media era has ushered in, these once powerful masters of the pen have vanished from the public sphere, to society’s detriment.
Thomas Paine’s writings in Common Sense were vital to the success of the American founding, as they crystallized the colonists’ revolutionary fervor. Edmund Burke’s writings on the French Revolution helped spark the conservative intellectual movement. The essays of George Orwell, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot and others have shaped the modern era.
But the essay form is now dead. Magazines and newspapers still have regular columnists and contributors. But the classic essay is an attempt to understand and, in the age of social media, the desire to understand has simply disappeared.
The great essayists understood that their craft was about ideas: words were just the medium through which to express those ideas. Social media functions on precisely opposite principles. It didn’t matter what ideas Sir Roger Scruton discussed in his 2019 interview with George Eaton of the New Statesman. Shortly after a deliberately fragmentary description of the interview went public, the Twitter mob got to work, levelling the most horrific accusations at Britain’s most prominent conservative philosopher. Within five hours, Scruton’s character had been smeared and he had been sacked from his government position. As Douglas Murray noted, “anyone, it seems, can claim a scalp using Twitter: twist the words of your victim and let the outrage mob do the rest.”
This collective character assassination was possible because the Twitter mob focused primarily on Scruton’s words, rather than his ideas. The New Statesman facilitated this by their hit job piece, which deliberately takes his words out of context. But the obsession with words and not ideas is a product of social media.
We can see this at work in the hashtags that trend on Twitter. In 2020, the most popular hashtags included #BlackLivesMatter and #DefundThePolice. These hashtags are utterly vacuous. What do they mean? No one knows. The message of #DefundThePolice appears simple: take monetary support away from police departments. Yet we were told to ignore the plain meaning time and time again because this was not an idea: it was a slogan. And, as Scruton himself once remarked, “There is no way in which a chanted slogan invites an answer.”
Social media does not provide platforms for the dissemination of ideas. Instead, Twitter especially is, in the words of Kevin Williamson, “a sad, sprawling bazaar in which attention is exchanged and bartered.” What captures the attention of the masses? Take a look at Twitter’s most prominent recent user: Donald Trump. His tweets contained random capital letters, the occasional exclamation mark, juvenile name calling and provocative words, but a dearth of ideas.
The world of ideas encompasses ideologies that have almost destroyed mankind and others that have rescued it. Ideas are a serious business. They ought to be grappled with and debated. The essayists of yore committed the time and energy to expound on ideas in a medium conducive to intellectual growth. That is why those great writers changed the world. Social media, however, is on the brink of destroying it.
A world that moves away from social media and returns to the proper written word is a world destined for great achievements. This would signal a move away from tribalism, one-liners and banter and bring us one step closer to a healthier society, focused on finding those ideas that will allow mankind to flourish.