Interrogating Tweets….

When I gave the after-dinner speech to Hull University Politics Society last week, I reiterated a point I have made before (as have others – I regard it as a necessary rather than original point), namely that the Internet enables people to offer prejudices as if they were statements of fact or the reasonable (‘it stands to reason..’) and without them being subject to any prior testing or indeed research.  Some just rely on phrases that are so well used that people think they know what they mean.  They can take the form of ‘dog whistle’ comments appealing to prejudice as if they are reasonable observations and often deemed self-evidently true.

The problem with Twitter is that a prejudice can quickly be liked and shared by others who hold the prejudice and it reinforces the tweeter’s view that because it has so much support it must be true.  It can be difficult to respond in the space available with a well-developed rebuttal.  Space means that it doesn’t amount to much more than ‘I am right’, ‘No you are not’ type exchanges.  Some clearly fancy themselves as armchair experts.  Even when a tweet links to a paper, that paper may be self-published or emanate from an extreme group, or one keen to disseminate false information.  This, as we see, is especially a problem with the Coronavirus crisis, with many deciding they are qualified to pass comment not just on policy, but on the science.

The challenge is to ensure one does not respond instantly to a Tweet, or accept its veracity, but rather interrogate it in terms of the motives of tweeter and the authority not just of the author, but also source to which there is a link.  Is it a published source?  Has it appeared in a reputable journal?  And ask yourself to what extent your own prejudices influence your response.  Is it something you want to be true, even if there is no evidence to support it?  And always bear in mind the need, as with any debate, to go for the ball and not the player – ‘The argument is flawed or questionable for the following reasons..’ and not ‘You are an idiot; you are always wrong’.

It has been amazing during the Brexit debate how many people relied on attacking the other side (‘You are idiots, you don’t understand…’) as if that would influence anybody as opposed to reinforcing the prejudices of those who think the other side is deranged.  It may provide some tension relief, but it serves to antagonise those who are being attacked.  The result is that those on both sides become more entrenched.

One thought occurs.  Given what I have said about ‘dog whistle’ phrases, it may be an interesting and possibly worthwhile exercise to collect examples.  It may serve at least some service if it alerts people to how easy it is to fall into employing them without thinking what they mean.  I therefore invite readers’ suggestions as to such phrases…

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Interrogating Tweets….

  1. Frank Young says:

    “The evidence says” (said without any evidence and as if the evidence says one thing), it’s cousin: “all the research says” (all the research?)

  2. David Pierce says:

    I have long thought that any appeal to “human nature” is suspect. “It’s against human nature” means “I don’t want to do it.”

    Appealing to human nature is a petitio principii. As we are both human, there is no reason why my interlocutor should have any more insight than I do into humanity in general.

  3. Lord Norton,
    Perhaps the way in which have developed allows a freedom of choice and consumer oriented economy that translates to the world of ideas. People believe they should be able to pick up a convenient truth from a brand they like emotionally that is not very expensive and suits their immediate purpose. It is a paradigmatic challenge to make it obvious that truth is not shopping when shopping has become the model for many activities in ever increasing fashion over several centuries. There is a difference in Twitter. But it is the sort of difference one finds at the later points in a long developing trend.

  4. Phrases I find suspect include: That idea is simply (antediluvian, medieval, neanderthal, tribal or old-fashioned): obsolete without truth, “the hypocrisy of the right is total”, “the hypocrisy of the left is total”, America has too much money for us to allow this problem to exist”,”The left reject all appeals to reason and logic and this is a perfect example”, “the religious right reject all science and this scientific argument (or study) has no value because they endorse it”.,”Young people have had it so easy that they are deluded”, “young people have it so hard today they cannot be held accountable”, “there is no scientific evidence whatsoever for this anecdotal claim”, “Our military is not threatened in any significant way by their military”, “families need increased direction and support in this area because of this novel situation”,”families are oppressed and would thrive if liberated from taxes, programs and regulations imposed by a power hungry government”. There is a bit of truth in all these phrases but I suspect all of them almost equally when I read them…

  5. maude elwes says:

    I never have and do not now do Tweets. Joined Facebook, Instagram or any other so called social media. For the very reason LN has opened this discussion. Which, from my point of view needs broadening for clarity.

    Very soon, as part of this New World Order of on line connection, we are going to lose our rights of choice, preference, selection of thought or belief, alternative views and any sense of freedom of self identity. And it is a terrifying prospect.

    Here is a link to the Brave New World we have allowed to envelope us all without a collective refusal of any kind.

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