Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

As a social media platform, Twitter by its nature is limiting. Once you have signed up for an account, you can Tweet your views to the online world in no more than 140 characters. Even text messages allow for more space.

The result: truncated thoughts and ideas. Elements such as ambiguity, subtlety and evidence, so integral to understanding the human condition, suffer. In their place, absolutism dominates.

Log onto Twitter and you will encounter a world of fundamentalisms. Generally, most issues are reduced to a core tenet and stripped of the provisos and reservations that define reasonable comment. This inevitably leads to misunderstanding and engenders binary debate.

When it comes to politics, Twitter debates quickly become hostile — the purpose not to persuade, but to bludgeon. Quantity is more important than quality: the more a position is endorsed, the more powerful it becomes, regardless of its veracity.

This war of attrition has forced political parties to adapt.

It is claimed that the ANC, ahead of the 2016 local government elections, paid influential figures to punt the party line. This was a response to an important online market in which the ANC is particularly weak, but it was also a reaction to the fact that other political parties have learnt to capitalise on the value of this market.

The DA, for example, is good at mobilising influential members, through e-mail or SMS, to advocate or defend the party.

In politics, the value of any idea lies not just in its intrinsic strength, but in the degree to which that idea is propagated. So, Twitter operates like a video game: it encourages quantity by rewarding things such as retweets and the number of followers of an account.

Twitter, for all the words written and ideas disseminated, is all about emotions. It’s a boiling pot of love and hate

The hope is that the more an idea is read or endorsed, the greater its ability will be to persuade. But the art of persuasion is almost entirely negated by Twitter. The platform can deliver information en masse, but an author cannot effectively tailor a thought to address a particular objection.

Nevertheless, it does persuade. The response of a political party or public representative to a divisive issue — compacted in a 140-character blunt truth — will almost instantaneously become notorious. It can cause damage to a brand or idea.

Think of some of the most politically influential tweets over the past 10 years and they are almost all notorious — often unjustly so. In every case, the veracity of the arguments they make is entirely irrelevant. They become metaphors — seemingly far more powerful in the hands of an opponent than the author.

In truth, Twitter, for all the words written and ideas disseminated, is all about emotions. It’s a boiling pot of love and hate.

You can “like” a tweet by clicking on a heart below it, but you cannot “dislike” a tweet. To express your “dislike”, you are forced to speak out against it. And so the stage is set for emotional conflict.

Disliking something is different from disagreeing with it. Typically it takes much resolve to look past your distaste and venture a rational counterpoint. The inclination, rather, is towards condemnation.

So, any given day on Twitter becomes a hunt for political parties and their supporters. They seek out those tweets that can serve as one of these powerful metaphors.

The most powerful metaphors are those that concern race. If
you can find one that can be associated, even loosely, with your enemy, you have won whatever exchange will follow — for it will have nothing to do with the observation per se.

Instead, as a metaphor, your discovery immediately takes on far larger significance: an example not just of an individual but an all-encompassing attitude, supposedly uniform and ubiquitous and applied to the relevant group in that fashion.

In this way, Twitter has developed a set of unseen rules and parameters that have come to define online conversation. They are all designed to gauge guilt or innocence, as everyone is permanently on trial.

The irony of it all is that while Twitter is itself a giant bubble, detached from the experience of those outside it, once inside the bubble there is nowhere to hide.

Facebook is far more reciprocal. Make a “friend” on Facebook and they, in turn, become yours. Facebook also has more variety and nuance when it comes to privacy and discretion.

On Twitter, you can follow almost anyone and dip into anyone’s world. Voyeurism is greatly encouraged.

This curious mixture of enforced brevity and moral judgment is profoundly poisonous.

George Orwell wrote of Big Brother, always watching. Jeremy Bentham wrote of the Panopticon, an imagined prison in which
discipline is maintained through a design whereby every prisoner can see every other at any time.

Twitter has effectively merged Orwell and Bentham’s ideas. It is not a place in which you’d want to live; you’re brave even to visit.

But for politicians, it’s a nightmare. They enter accompanied by the unrealistic expectation that they embody all that is virtuous and good. Twitter then seeks, relentlessly and without mercy, to remove them from that pedestal. And when it does, it revels in the fallout.

So has Twitter improved or damaged debate in the country? It’s difficult to say for sure.

But it is easier to answer whether it has provided an outlet for all the emotional distress that lurks below the surface. Only, you get the sense that the door has been opened for just a peek, through which far too much is trying to force itself.

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