This is Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy™: Part 3
Twitter, narrative, and the roots of power.
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The Modern-Day Agora
This is where all the cool kids hung out back in the day, the birthplace of democracy. It doesn’t look like much, but around the 6th century BCE, the agora, which means “a place of gathering,” was where Athenians met to conduct business, participate in governance, decide judicial matters, and elect city officials. Just as importantly, the agora was where folks came to shoot the breeze and engage in communal discourse on all manner of topics: Persia, NBA scores, military affairs, Hillary Clinton fabricating Russiagate with the help of the mainstream media and nobody blinking an eye, etc. etc.
In America, I see Twitter as our agora. It's one of the most influential communications platforms in use, which might seem counterintuitive when you look at where it ranks in number of users vis-à-vis other social media platforms. Facebook is #1 with nearly 3 billion, no shocker there. But Twitter? All the way down at #15 (436 million), barely beating out Reddit and Quora—and even below Pinterest, which is slightly embarrassing.
Facebook might dwarf Twitter in user volume, scope, and wealth, but the latter’s open, fast-paced communicative structure with a dedicated (read: addicted) community of “highly networked individuals” — individuals who exist to impress upon others that they know more about everything than anyone else knows, FYI — has far more of an impact in shaping reality.
Twitter is the preferred playground of the blue-check praetorian guard, a cynical and ethically marginal species charged with creating The Narrative™ every one of us is subjected to, whether we realize it or not; an echo chamber where they toke up on ephemeral dopamine hits and take turns talking each other down from misanthropic spiritual ledges they ascend with remarkable regularity.
What Makes Twitter Unique?
Well, for starters it’s an information ecosystem that requires brevity and concision. That alone makes it unique and especially conducive to a generation of young adults who share a fetishistic attachment to acronyms and truncated language, as well as today's “activist journalists,” most of whom have the explicative ability of a toothless toddler.
Importantly, Twitter’s pithy, rapid-fire format suits anyone with a professional or instinctual understanding of attention, the crucial resource of the digital economy, and it gamifies tweets by offering immediate, vivid, quantified evaluations of one's conversational success. It literally scores discourse. It also distorts the hell out of it because the tradeoffs of brevity and concision are space and nuance.
Metaphorically speaking, Twitter’s a lot like a cocktail party on steroids in that it's a streamlined, short-form communication platform embedded within a predominantly cultural context that affords countless opportunities for those wanting to read, write, or interact. Whether tracking events in real time or catching up on the latest updates, the platform provides a variety of social and informational experiences, especially since users are granted unique agency—you don't have to be friends with those you choose to follow.
People obviously use Twitter for a variety of reasons, but it’s evolved into a global PA system thanks to its most singular feature: the retweet. The retweet function is a force multiplier, the fastest way to simultaneously spread and endorse information. And it’s frictionless. A tweet by itself is basically a text message, except instead of one-to-one, it's one-to-many; but when you add in the retweet function, no communication platform can compete. It's why I believe that, even with dozens of alternative mediums available for use, no other independent channel of information holds as much potential for radical ideological change on a mass scale.
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to spread ideas and reach an audience, you needed the media’s broadcasting infrastructure, which was centralized and expensive. No longer. In the 21st century, with a media landscape that's fractured and atomized, it’s the flow of attention, not information, that matters; one’s ability to spread ideas and reach an audience is now about making yourself heard above the info-sphere's deafening din, and the best way to do that is by using digital platforms.
Indeed, in the age of the tweet, the media is rarely the first to break a story, let alone deliver news that's based on substantive information grounded in reality. Which at least partially explains why a growing majority of Americans (74%) get their daily dose of polarizing media content on Twitter, the leading source for news among all social media sites. The company has taken steps to maintain its status as chief arbiter of news in today’s digital dystopia by catering to the haughty aristocratic intellectuals who judge from on high and believe the common folk external to their immediate universe are docile, ovine bumpkins whose massed philistinism gave Trump the White House.
I'm talking about the mainstream media.
Discourse, Narrative, and Culture
We’re about to get a little philosophical here, so bear with me, folks.
French philosopher Michel Foucault defined discourse as “the ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity, and power relations which inhere in such knowledge and relations between them.” So, a bit more intensive than just dialogue. Discourse includes words and signs and symbols and pictures and what have you; it’s about conveyance as much as it is communication.
Discussion, on the other hand, which is conversation about a subject/issue, is how specific views pick up traction over time. And when a particular view regarding a particular matter of discussion remains popular enough to withstand time’s tendency to diminish rhetorical salience, it eventually evolves into a default view—like, for instance, many of the words and ideas that've been considered common sense for millennia but are now being suppressed and prohibited by left-wing ideologues.
If that default view hangs around long enough, it morphs into an attitude.
Circling back to the top, now: The impact of discourse depends on efficiency. And what I mean by efficiency is how coherently a specific message is packaged and circulated. Perhaps the best way of measuring communicative efficiency is by gauging the ease with which the public understands and digests the information in question. If it’s all jumbled and mumbled, it’s unlikely to resonate and leave an impression.
I believe narratives are the most efficient way to communicate anything. Most of what we perceive as reality is based on storytelling. We’re wired to create and organize meaning in this way, and, though we’re rarely aware of it, we are, all of us, constantly beset with competing narratives.
Meta-narratives, often used within the realm of politics to substantiate a competing ideology, are essentially overarching accounts or interpretations of events and circumstances that provide a pattern for people’s beliefs and give meaning to their experiences.
The woke ideology (or whatever the hell they’re calling it now) is a prime example: A fantastical vision of America, a psychological Atlantis they're chasing after and “fighting for,” a dogma especially influential among the unmoored, ships without rudders, because it’s a powerful morality tale during a time when the alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience seem to have reached a crescendo.
It feels good to believe you’re one of the good guys, and it feels just as good to believe your side of the aisle is correct while the opposite side is wrong. But this is nothing more than Manichean moral certainty, a hallmark of today's Left. As Bill Heath of One Foot in the Gravy recently pointed out, liberals are so convinced they occupy the moral high ground that they refuse to discuss an issue unless you first accept their assumptions as truth, which makes a discussion impossible.
Thousands of years ago, narratives were shared around camp fires. The printing press had yet to be invented, so the tales that stuck around were obviously the most memorable. The fan favorites. Influential, impactful, and coherent. The Bible is an excellent example:
“Scholars now believe that the stories that would become the Bible were disseminated by word of mouth across the centuries, in the form of oral tales and poetry—perhaps as a means of forging a collective identity among the tribes of Israel. Eventually, these stories were collated and written down.” — HistoryExtra
The only thing that’s really changed is the variety of ways information can be communicated. Narratives are still used to sanctify cultural change; they’re still far and away the best modality to establish ideological underpinnings.
So, in light of the fact that narratives are still used to determine how a society collectively sees itself, it follows, then, that if a group (say, for example, a political party) holds inordinate control over the medium that functions as the modern-day agora because it’s where our society’s most important discourse happens, that group is in a position to adjudicate the bounds of acceptable content and therefore possesses an extraordinary degree of influence over which ideas gain traction.
If you control the agora, you can control discourse; if you can control discourse, you can control narratives; if you can control narratives, then you've got some serious ideological power. And for better or worse, Twitter is where the most influential discourse happens. It's our agora.
Look Beneath the Surface
That's why the Left has been freaking out about Elon Musk buying Twitter: Every single left-wing partisan knows, consciously or subconsciously, that Twitter has been an indispensable propaganda tool — exclusively theirs for at least a decade now — with an outsized influence on reality thanks to algorithms that’ve codified the ideological predilections of Silicon Valley oligarchs who happily kowtow to Democratic Party mandarins.
Twitter became integral to the same people who’ve cloaked pretty much every significant American institution in progressive orthodoxy over the past decade or so; in more ways than not, this social cesspool of a rostrum again made members of once hallowed progressions the rightful custodians of knowledge, and they’ve since sought increasingly dystopian ways to manage the perturbing agent between authority and the public: information.
I know this might sound like overly-abstract, convoluted nonsense, but information and the technology of dissemination form a central pillar of power in a democratic society: Democratic power tends to be partial toward those with the best command of political information at any particular stage in history—which is sort of like a fancy way of saying those who control the narratives a society uses to make sense of reality are the ones in possession of real power. It follows, then, that if relationships among people, information (i.e. news), and political authority are altered, it impacts how a society functions and how its citizens fare. Which means change(s) in the structure and accessibility of information will royally mess things up for complacent elites enamored with the status quo.
The liberal obsession with Twitter and the Disinformation Boogeyman is a front for maintaining a stranglehold on the flow of discourse devoted to the perpetuation of their power and the cultural hegemony they enjoy thanks to an unofficial partnership between Big Tech, corporate media, academia, and cash-rich foundations.
But truth is a function of trust and pertains to the authority of the source. And when peasants like yours truly can use online and mobile technologies to feed narrative-undermining information into the news stream and the public conversation thanks to political communication in the era of digital participatory culture, this is a very big problem indeed for a Democratic Party welded to, and increasingly dependent on, a mainstream media axis that desperately needs to maintain some semblance of authority in a bid for relevance and self-preservation.
In order to institute the radical, society-wide ideological makeover the Left thinks will lay the groundwork for a Democratic Party regime extending far into the future, they need more than typical “political leverage.” Regardless of what the mainstream media would have you believe, much of what they’re trying to normalize — i.e. rewriting history, erasing biology, recasting racism as the sole provenance of white Americans, packing the Supreme Court, pushing “neuro-divergence,” gender-affirming surgery, “equity” over equality, censoring speech, “anti-racism,” giving teachers authority over students that bypasses parents, defunding the police, lax criminal prosecution standards, banishing the concept of merit-based grading, radical gender lessons for children, critical race theory, punishing people for their opinions, etc. etc. etc. — requires more than just influence, considering most Americans would rather not adopt the same disordered thinking that's led the progressive sect of the Democratic Party to reject, in the defense of bizarre pet ideologies, fundamental truths and realities that are as evident as the pull of gravity.
An agenda as idiotic and radical and illiberal as this has to subvert public awareness; it can’t happen overnight because the public majority wouldn’t be amenable to it.
To be sure, the Democratic Party playbook is quite literally a bunch of oligarchs who simply ring the right bell for the right cause when the time comes, at which point progressive minions come running, wallets open, heads nodding in the affirmative, mouths open wide and emitting primal shrieks about whatever happens to be the BS de jour. It's pavlovian. That is to say, a depressingly large swath of Americans would welcome the imposition of such an agenda. But the silent majority is very real. We can thank our lucky stars for that much, at least.
And so but yes: Slow, low-key change is likely the only way to refashion society as radically as the Left wants, and it necessitates a significant influence over, if not firm control of, discourse in today's agora. Such change must be subtle enough that, over time, people are desensitized to the subversive processes unfolding. In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, French sociologist Jacques Ellul describes this as “pre-propaganda”:
“Direct propaganda, aimed at modifying opinions and attitudes, must be preceded by propaganda that is sociological in character, slow, general, seeking to create a climate, an atmosphere of favorable preliminary attitudes. No direct propaganda can be effective without pre-propaganda, which, without direct or noticeable aggression, is limited to creating ambiguities, reducing prejudices, and spreading images, apparently without purpose.” — Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes
Understand that this is a very insidious process that requires a masterful grasp of human psychology and sociology, and a boat load of patience. Not all that dissimilar from what Itamar Even-Zohar calls “culture-planning,” it's basically a concerted effort within today’s Democratic Party to arrange a semiotic environment via structure-engendering devices like syntax and narrative that naturalizes schemas of social control favoring left-wing interests, and, over time, makes considerable swaths of the country predisposed to the resultant culture.
Life moves at a breakneck pace, and we don't notice when veiled forces are tinkering with reality. Most people are, understandably, focused on each day in an hour-by-hour manner — appointments, picking the kids up from school, work, entertainment, etc. etc. — while constantly bombarded with stimuli. Day-to-day life, with its unchanging, pressing demands, is reassuring when the future is as murky as ever and the present doesn't exactly bode well.
We’re also not too interested in spending scarce free-time wrestling with philosophized meta-concepts about how the liberal orthodoxy to which our key cultural institutions have bent the knee might affect the conformation of the cultural realities placed before us; and we don't give much thought to whether the culture being imposed on us in seemingly benevolent, “pro-social justice” ways is simply the product of spontaneous derivations of the popular will, or if it’s something more Machiavellian.
But it’s very much the latter.