The sweet, sweet allure of elite approval
‘Sensible’ and ‘moderate’ conservatives are never going to be accepted or liked
Historian Tom Holland once compared social media’s political drift with the hoplite phalanx in classical Greece. Because soldiers were protected on their right by a comrade holding a shield in their left hand, the body of men would inevitably drift to the right as each man sought protection. The same was true of Twitter, he pointed out, except in the opposite direction.
The site, now under the control of Elon Musk, has for the past dozen or so years dominated the political landscape, and it’s not a coincidence that those same years have seen possibly the biggest shift in elite opinion in history. If Musk does end up killing the platform, and I doubt he will, that might not be the end of the world.
Unlike the people who see Twitter as a hellscape, I enjoy the experience. I’ve made good friends on the site, and it’s an extremely useful way of learning things, especially in areas I was quite ignorant of before: Byzantine history, American urbanism, Ethiopian religious art. Accounts like the Cultural Tutor provide a general education, or you can read all the latest interesting science papers from Rolf Degen. These are things I’m not imaginative or adventurous enough to discover for myself.
But the site has clearly had a negative influence on public discourse, and I don’t think conservatives should take comfort from the fact that Twitter users are unrepresentative of the population as a whole. They might be a minority but they’re a very influential one, and the cultural norms you see on the platform inevitably spread out to the general population. Twitter is not real life; it’s real life in 20 years. Or to paraphrase a man who would have been very popular on the site: you might not be interested in the Twitter discourse, but the Twitter discourse is interested in you.
Take its impact on journalism, a trade vulnerable to harmful social media effects because journalists are obsessed with popularity. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it in Antifragile: ‘My experience is that most journalists, professional academics, and others in similar phoney professions don’t read original sources, but each other, largely because they need to figure out the consensus before making a pronouncement.’ He had a point.
Twitter has clearly made the commentariat more conformist, pushing it in a more progressive direction, with a few noticeable stand out exceptions on the Right, many of them, I’m sorry to say, attention-seekers and grifters, or people who strangely like being hated, like it’s all just panto.