The Unbricked Guide to Twitter: how to handle the outrage without becoming a troll
Ah Twitter, you silly blue bird. What should we do with you?
While I am trying to spend less time in this candy app, I can’t in good faith allow us to say: “Eh, f*** it, let the trolls and Nazis have Twitter, I’ve got to binge the latest Netflix show!” Catching up on Netflix is indeed crucial for maintaining a lively office life, but seriously messed up things will continue to happen unless we also try to be more active citizens. In this day and age, this strangely includes (but hopefully doesn’t stop at) Twitter.
So how can an Unbricked Fig use Twitter without turning into a troll?
1) Don’t call the other side stupid.
Every “idiot” on Twitter has their reasons for their beliefs (or even preferences), just as you do. Are they valid, rational reasons? Given that some still believe the Earth is flat, certainly no. But not everything is as simple as the geometry of the Earth (and even that might be a computer simulation). In fact, I’d say most things we argue about on Twitter are more nuanced than this. And one thing that is guaranteed not to change anyone’s mind is being called stupid. You can do better. Invest some time in trying to understand the opposing perspective with a spirit of curiosity. Especially when it comes to the little stuff like which phone maker you prefer.
That said, Nazis should be called out for being Nazis, but labeling them just as stupid dismisses their potential power. We’ve now seen several high-profile showcases of how labeling a point of view as stupid without digging into the circumstances that drive people to support “stupid” choices, can lead to a false sense of superiority and arguing with the wrong arguments. And then you find yourself under a president who grabs pussies or in a country rage quitting the EU “because immigrants.” Try to understand what you’re really arguing with, which likely isn’t the loudest thing that’s actually being said.
2) Check the sources, especially when it feels too good or too bad to be true.
Wait. Does the tweet you’re about to retweet make you feel angry, outraged, surprised, or smug? I know you’ve got to binge the latest Netflix show, but just take a minute to make sure you’re not spreading certifiably false and misleading news!
It often takes less than a minute, I swear. If you see an image spreading the unbelievable breaking news that the latest “hurricane contains sharks,” copy-paste that into Google, and the very first hit (you don’t even have to scroll!) will be that of Snopes labeling it as definitely false. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Ten seconds, tops, depending on how fast your internet speed is.
Now, there’s a more dangerous game that media play: misleading news. This kind can be generated even by established media outlets in their endless quest for more ad views. Usually, they’ll sprinkle some actual news with keywords, soundbites, and visuals that are guaranteed to get a reaction. Thanks to the wonderful invention of social media, even serious journalists are being evaluated based on how many shares, likes and comments their stories get. Not surprisingly, journalists are learning how to optimize for precisely that. (Hello Goodhart’s Law.)
I’ll give you a recent example: I saw a Fox News headline in my Google News that said (paraphrasing): NASA says an ice age is coming! The article (nope, not gonna link it, you can google it) includes a lot of details and quotes from somebody who seems to know their sun science, but you have to read carefully to notice that the “warning” refers to temperatures in space. As in, not on Earth’s surface, which is what you, as a Fox News reader, likely care about. The article includes a picture of a snow-covered yard that seems to be of earthly origin and a thermometer attuned to temperatures on Earth’s surface; I bet it would be rather useless in the thermosphere the quoted scientist is talking about. However, for a reader looking to confirm their climate change skepticism bias, the brief mention is likely to be missed.
Besides, retweeting the post on Twitter doesn’t really require you to actually read the post. Key trigger words in the headline and the main pic are enough to confirm a bias. Also not required is clicking through the sources the article mentions, doing a quick search to discover that only certain kind of media seems to be covering this “news” or that NASA is actually not telling you to get an extra warm coat. (IFLScience has a nice, short recap of the actual news in case you’re wondering.)
Look, I know, this one requires scrolling past the first few hits and actually looking for the source. False news is new and exciting, and therefore has an unfair advantage in spreading faster than true news. But you can resist the novelty urge and check before you share, can you not?
3) Check your own assumptions.
Now, before you start feeling too smug about the climate change example above, ask yourself: would you check the sources if it were a story confirming your bias? It’s not a question of left or right (or some other polarity of choice). Confirmation bias is something we’re all guilty of – yes, even scientists. Because it feels absolutely awesome to be proven right!
The next time you’re rolling up your sleeves to argue with somebody on Twitter, ask yourself: why is it that you firmly believe something to be true? Is the belief based on facts and research, or just a hunch you have? Is it something that “is known,” “everyone says that” or “it’s obvious”? The book How To Be Right by James O’Brien has some excellent examples of how difficult it is for assumptions to withstand good prodding and poking.
Actually, an argument could be made that in the age when everyone can broadcast their assumptions to the world, “believing without evidence is morally wrong.” To that, I’d add that it’s becoming increasingly important to know whether you can trust the source of your latest belief. YouTube videos do not count as evidence unless they can point to some reliable sources. Shady journals or self-published books based on anecdotal “evidence” again don’t make the cut. Even established scientists can sometimes get it wrong, which is why just one paper on the topic doesn’t make the hypothesis an established theory.
As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his latest book, 21st century censorship doesn’t have to block information, it’s way easier to flood the channels “with disinformation and distraction.” Research even shows that as we’re exposed to opposing views on social media, we end up with even greater polarization, so the echo chamber isn’t really the enemy here. Untangling assumptions and asking the underlying questions is far from easy, but it’s a quest you should embark on if you really want to level up as a human.
4) Be aware of your emotions.
A reason why it’s so hard to think rather than react is that opposing views trigger strong emotions. If you don’t practice recognizing your own emotions, they’re going to make you your b****. Fighting emotions is usually no good either, it’s like arguing with the rain. A better strategy is to acknowledge that it’s raining and wait until it passes before you go out for a walk. Or in Twitter terms, to wait before the rage passes before you call everyone a moron.
Again, no easy task. Emotions drive our behavior, and social media algorithms prioritize our emotional reactions. One little thing you can currently do on Twitter is to turn off “Show the best Tweets first” option under Settings. What’s wrong with the best Tweets? Well, the best tweets are what people share and like. Here’s some good news (finally!): we actually love to share happy news with each other! We also like funny and exciting news, but alas – you didn’t think the good new would last, did you? –, we also feel the itch to share the news that makes us angry and anxious.
It makes sense when you think about our tribal past. Our ancestors who shared the nasty local gossip ostracized the murderous neighbor and generally become better equipped at avoiding premature death. As it often turns out, what worked well for our small hunter-gathering tribes, seriously backfires on Twitter. Our tribal instincts kick in, and we join in the latest moral outrage, without stopping to consider whether this week’s favorite target really deserves to be harshly punished and ostracized for a misquote.
By recognizing such tribal instincts and resulting emotions, you can decide how you’re going to react. Are you going to be the monkey that shouts with everyone else, or are you going to be a more advanced monkey that tries to confirm and understand the outrage before joining in? A lot of things are indeed worth the outrage these days. And you can still get outraged about the little things in private, with family and friends – it feels good to rant a little. But when you’re on Twitter, you’re broadcasting to a much larger tribe. Is the outrage justified, and why? Can it be addressed in some other way other than throwing angry tantrums on Twitter?
5) Plant seeds of gratitude.
With everyone getting upset (and there are many reasons for it too!), it’s easy to start seeing Twitter as the place where you got to complain about politicians you don’t approve of or the little injustices in your life, such as bad weather or closed roads. Here’s a challenge: when you feel the urge to share your life with the Twitterverse, tweet about something you’re grateful for.
Tweet about a good book you’ve read, about a colleague that has taught you something new, about a cool new website you discovered (hint, hint), the friendly waiter at the local café, the local park you enjoy visiting, an app you enjoy using. Anything that makes your life better. I’ll be honest with you: it’s very likely these tweets will not be liked and retweeted as much as the more provocative ones. But you’ll make somebody’s day better by recognizing they are doing good amidst all the craziness in the world.
Mind you, I’m not saying we should pretend that everything is awesome! – on the contrary, we should make noise about things like #MeToo, locked up babies and so much more! There’s a difference between pretending your life is perfect and expressing gratitude by reaching out to fellow humans. In a feed in which everyone is complaining about something, be it traffic or bad coffee, a little gratitude can be a small act of resistance that will increase your well-being.
The Unbricked checklist for tweets
Let’s recap the five Unbricked strategies that won’t turn you into a Twitter troll:
And yes, do this every day, with every tweet, retweet or reply. If it seems like a lot of work for 280 characters, well, maybe it should be! After all, it’s an attempt to make Twitter a little less horrible place and to try to raise the level of online discussions even as most media are in a race to lower it.
You won’t get more likes or retweets by following this checklist. But you will become an Unbricked Fig, one that doesn’t dance to the tunes of the Twitter algorithm.
Dig deeper: recommendations
If you have a couple of minutes:
‘This Is How Rats Work.’ Why Twitter’s Emphasis on Follower Counts Could Be Backfiring by Katy Steinmetz
Moral outrage in the digital age by Molly J. Crockett
If you have more minutes:
Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us by Will Storr
How To Be Right … in a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Unbrick your fig challenge
If you revert back to a chronological Twitter timeline by turning off “best tweets”, you will receive:
- 💎 5 calm