Political polarization in the Twitter-sphere and how it will end


A few weeks ago a very Left-wing (I believe Marxist?) reciprocal follow on Twitter quoted Sebastian Gorka. I couldn’t see what was being said, so I assumed Gorka had blocked him. I clicked the link only to find that I was blocked by Gorka!

This really confused me because to my knowledge I have never spoken about Gorka. My working assumption is that I was on a “block-list” that Gorka had subscribed to. But what sort of block-list was I on? Honestly, the most likely conclusion is that I probably follow or am followed by someone blacklisted by Gorka’s block-list. The strangest thing is that some people who are literal Communists (with substantial followings) were not blocked by Gorka!

The criteria I use to follow people is probably pretty strange. If they follow me and work in a scientific field close to my own professional interests I will usually follow them back (e.g., I pretty much follow back every evolutionary and population genomicist and geneticist, but not every genomicist or geneticist). Since the vast majority of this group are vocally liberal, or keep their politics to themselves (there is a non-trivial minority of libertarian-leaning scientists who are closeted), I see a lot of tweets I disagree with.

After that, I will follow people I interact with a lot or post interesting stuff outside-of-my-field. For example, I often, but not always, follow back economic historians. Then there are science journalists who focus on biology with some following and who I interact with or know personally. I don’t like following people who have no information on their profile.

Finally, there are libertarian and conservative pundits. They often follow me, and I follow back since I respect that they actually bother to follow someone who often tweets about abstruse and technical topics. After the recent hit piece that was written about me in a well respected science journalism publication* (which has really updated my priors as to what I think about journalism and how much, or honestly little, I respect the profession) there is really no point in engaging with any prominent liberal that is outside of science because their minds are made up. I am honestly OK with that since I’m not liberal, and I still retain influence and following on the Right, where people are more open-minded about the world in my opinion (basically I think anyone who has sympathies that they have the courage to make vocal with classical liberalism will end up on the Right eventually; I’m looking at you, Bret Weinstein).

And yet because most of the people I follow are science-related I’m exposed to different opinions all the time…and that probably explains how I got on Gorka’s block-list. So I was really curious when I saw Kai Ryssdal, the NPR journalist, tell people to follow “5 people you disagree with.” To me, that was a really bizarre statement. I assume I follow about 500 to 600 people I disagree with. This is pretty much in evidence when people re-tweet stuff about how all conservatives are Nazi’s approvingly (even though they follow me perhaps they don’t notice I am a conservative!). I guess I’ve gotten really good at ignoring smugness and screaming that is the total polar opposite of mine politically (though I agree with the Left on many positions, so it’s not always in disagreement).

Out of curiosity, I decided to put up a poll to survey what my follower’s politics were. Since there were only four options allowed, I allowed for liberal, moderate, conservative, and libertarian. Though I wasn’t surprised by the political diversity, I was surprised by the balance. In a classical “world’s smallest political quiz” my followers are almost equally split across the four quadrants!

As for how this polarization will end, I think it will end with the cessation of politics and the assertion of an old-fashioned authoritarianism. It will be Sulla. Or Caesar. Or Shihuangdi. Liberalism in the classical sense of the Right and Left dies in meekness, and most people are quite meek. Many liberals privately admit to me that they’re terrified of a Spanish Civil War type denouement to our culture wars, while many non-liberals are resigned (the people on the extremes, who are very vocal, of course, are thrilled and anticipatory). Social change is nonlinear, and it would not surprise me if in the coming generation the polarization and dehumanization come to a head and it ends badly for one side. I assume that my children will come to see in their maturity most definitely. Ultimately people will have to pick a side or be persecuted by both groups (also, an international exit plan is probably necessary for many people who have expressed opinions in public). The only way to win and be safe is to have a tribe. My nation right or wrong really expresses something deep in terms of human nature.

But until then life goes and we try to make the best of it. Knowledge and learning existed before liberal democracy, and it will persist after it. As someone who follows a lot of liberals honestly I’m just more and more convinced that there will never be healing because there is so little charity, grace, or humility when it comes to political differences. I really relate to Maajid Nawaz talking to Islamists in unguarded moments in prison realizing how they would give no quarter the opposition if they came to power. My twitter feed pretty much makes me more, not less, Right-leaning. These people hate the idea of the existence of me and want to blot it out! It’s the same on the conservative side, though since I don’t follow too many conservatives I wouldn’t know** Perhaps amusingly most of the crazy conservative stuff I see is hate-re-tweeted by liberals. I guess it would be different if I picked “Salon conservative” type of liberals, but in science, you don’t really have a choice when you are in such a small minority, unelss you are only interested in pharm or applied ag science.

Addendum: When people find out I’m conservative or identify me as such the liberals are often confused and want clarification. First, political quizzes often show me to be a moderately conservative libertarian (if that makes sense). But even if I was a Left-liberal if you are vocal about things which are considered third-rails on the Left it doesn’t matter what the preponderance of views turns out to be. A few deadly sins count more than one thousand mitzvahs. At the end of the day, a pragmatist picks the side which won’t persecute him. I am no longer surprised when a publically very orthodox liberal scientist confides me in thoughts that would get them scourged by their own tribe. It’s my tribe, right or wrong, for most people, and heretics get it the worst. But the disjunction between private and public views really just reinforces that there’s not really as much to preserve as we think, and we’re already extremely far down the path to cultural cognition overwhelming individual reason.

* Several journalists privately DMed to say they thought it was unfair, but of course they can’t break ranks with their peers and say that in public (with very rare exceptions). It’s a guild, and you don’t cross powerful people in the guild who want to shape reality as they see it. I really respect Foucault a lot more than I used to after seeing how journalism works operationally.

** Just because someone is an intolerant screamer on politics doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot of interesting things to say, so I keep following usually. Until the last day of this republic, we’ll have plenty to exchange of value. Even if someone believes you are going to hell they often can treat you decently on the non-abstract level.

33 thoughts on “Political polarization in the Twitter-sphere and how it will end

  1. The most useful historical parallel, I think, for what we might see, is the English Civil wars. The only hopeful thing in the comparison is that such affairs need not end with Sulla.

    But a Cromwell is only a slight improvement.

  2. I’m currently suspended from twitter for calling someone a retard. There’s always minds, voat or gab to join but i don’t really like alt-right ppl – they just have good “hate links” that libs won’t post. You also need a critical mass of users (which those sites don’t have yet) or else it’s not interesting but once you have that there’s the inevitable balkanization and rule making. I actually think reddit has handled this pretty well. They went in the SJW direction a bit but are still relevant. If i had to pick one site to use it would be reddit probably.
    I still only follow 6 twitter feeds as i’m very picky. I voted moderate on your poll but i don’t really know if that’s what i actually am, it’s just what i feel like i am:)

  3. my heart is with the roundheads, but my head is with the royalists!

    the state is much more powerful and totalistic than it was in the 17th century, i think i disagree unfortunately. they who control the state will make slaves of us all in some fashion or another. but probably better the oligarchy than the braying mob.

  4. It would be somewhat sadly ironic if the American republic ended the same general type of way that the Roman Republic did, given how big fans many of the architects of the US were of it. I hope not, and American history does give some indication that it need not end that way (looking at the post-Reconstruction South, the illiberal norm seems to be that the US keeps the forms and procedures of democratic governance, but drastically restricts who can participate both in legal and illegal ways).

    but probably better the oligarchy than the braying mob.

    The oligarchy tend to be pretty bad at keeping the peace as well. Their intra-elite struggles for power are too vicious. It generates a state to try and restrain them, although not necessarily a liberal one (typically an illiberal one).

  5. I’m blocked from commenting at the LA Times and have no idea why. And there is no way to appeal that I can see. I don’t share your pessimism about the future of our republic but agree that it hangs in the balance — as it has several other times in our history.

  6. I wish I thought you were wrong about any of that but I don’t think you are.

    What do you use to view twitter? I can’t follow anything like that many people or my feed is far too busy to keep track of. But I suspect that I am doing it wrong.

  7. brett, i expect the *forms* of the old republic to persist, though all will know them as sham.

    What do you use to view twitter?

    it is the abomination. the end of ratiocination and the beginning of the galloping herd.

  8. You’re coming around! I’ve wanted twitter to be destroyed for some time now. Honestly, once you’re off that site it becomes apparent that people are decent. I’m in disagreement with most of my coworkers on political matters, and they’re conscious of that, but it’s never stopped us from working together.

    Academia, or certain parts of it, must be more of a shark tank though. The higher you go on the status scale, the more fanaticism there seems to be. My friend who works at a gas station says things I could never get away with. Truly, proles and animals are free.

  9. Having experienced two failed states, this is a subject to which I have given some thought.

    most people are quite meek.

    Only when they lack power. Most people can be quite “bold” and vicious once they have it.

    Many liberals privately admit to me that they’re terrified of a Spanish Civil War type denouement to our culture wars

    They ought to be. Should it come to that (in large part due to their choices and those of their allies), they are likely to lose. Most of them lack the basic skills and mindset to survive a modern version of the bushwhacking war along the Missouri-Kansas border that took place during the first Civil War.

    A substantial majority of men in their prime (and a bit older) with havoc-wreaking skills hail from the Midwest and the South with strong Team Red sympathies.

    while many non-liberals are resigned (the people on the extremes, who are very vocal, of course, are thrilled and anticipatory).

    Even though I am convinced that my side would win, I dread it. A second civil war would be enormously destructive, with a huge loss of life and a catastrophic decline in the quality of life for most of my fellow Americans. Only the insane or the ignorant would welcome it.

    All those “Alt-righters” who want some sort of a violent ultra-rightist or white supremacist revolution don’t know squat about the history of revolutions and don’t realize that many of them and their loved ones would not survive such a dangerous tumult. They seem to operate under the fantasy that THEY will acquire supreme power. They might pay heed to what happened to the leadership of the Sturmabteilung in Germany or to the first generation of communist revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution in China.

    Social change is nonlinear, and it would not surprise me if in the coming generation the polarization and dehumanization come to a head and it ends badly for one side.

    But that nonlinearity also means the polarization could suddenly die down dramatically, and we might experience another four decades of social consensus. Best be prepared for both eventualities, eh?

    I assume that my children will come to see in their maturity most definitely. Ultimately people will have to pick a side or be persecuted by both groups

    I strongly suggest you teach them skills that will allow them to survive and be able to be of use to the right side. If you didn’t possess such skills yourself, learn alongside them. It’s fun for most people (especially men).

    (also, an international exit plan is probably necessary for many people who have expressed opinions in public).

    You better have a lot of stable foreign currency or other internationally liquid forms of property. Living in exile is quite costly… unless you are of some use to the host society and it underwrites the lifestyle of your family. Also, the disintegration of the hegemon might lead to disturbances overseas as well. It’s hard to predict what will happen where. Sometimes, the devil you know…

    The only way to win and be safe is to have a tribe.

    Absolutely. I have acquaintances who think they are going to take off with their families into the wilderness. That’s a poor long-term survival strategy. You have to find a community and become a valuable part of it. Not only does it improve one’s chance of survival, it is also the right thing to do – to be of service to a community in need.

  10. You really think that there might be some sort of civil war in the US eventually???
    That sounds pretty extreme, as an outside observer I have difficulty imagining how something like this could happen. Polarization in the US seems pretty bad, but right now at least real violence still seems to be limited. It struck me how big a deal the whole Charlottesville business was in the American media, and how many Americans apparently had no idea what Antifa is. That seems rather different from Europe where violent left-wing activists are a real presence with links to establishment parties.

  11. You really think that there might be some sort of civil war in the US eventually???

    When Texas, Florida and Georgia flip to blue, they will come for the guns and there will be blood, lots of it. Guns are a security blanket for quite a few people.

  12. German Reader,

    German Reader,

    Semi off topic, but I suspect Hungary is going to be the first European country to have a civil war within the medium-term future. (This is mostly because they’re the one where an ‘extreme’ party has the most chance of winning power in the foreseeable future. Maybe Austria, but Jobbik is still substantially more radical, both in their self definition and in the way they’re perceived, than the FPO. And also Orban is himself mildly authoritarian and I don’t see him ever countenancing a Jobbik electoral victory without a fight).

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

  13. I have sometimes mused that I should have began life 10 years earlier or 10 years later

    10 years older and we inherit a still functional society of sorts; 10 years later and I can fight in the “wars to come

  14. One thought is that so much of the higher levels of understanding are being lost in translation for the masses. Your next post on the gene shopping of parents is a great example. Long term, a loss in genetic diversity will happen, with people being optimized for the current environment.

    On the other hand, dropping below the event horizon is a viable long term strategy as one ages. It is very hard for a revolution to summon the long departed into an accounting, whereas the young are always handy.

    I also agree the oligarchy will demand increasing fealty from all levels above prole, and will use technology to foster even more orwellian outcomes using modern mass media techniques. Just watching the President flop around his campaign promises, and seeing the moving target of those promises is proof that truth is now plastic, and for sale.

    Science has always had a bare grip on freedom since the days of Newton. What if he had been summoned to the Star Chamber for the practice of alchemy, instead of Master of the Mint? Under the Catholic Church would his Principia been suppressed?

    In short, we are returning to an age where knowledge may indeed again be suppressed, just to keep the masses happy. That is also a very interesting time, because it also would tend to shift power away from America, and give it to China- which is definitely not free.

    HG Wells predicted the oligarchy would try to escape in his Time Machine. And I think we can well see it beginning to happen in reality. Today we say the rich are just like you and I, but what happens when they are 2 or 3 standard deviations above the common man, and their needs and desires are supreme? The undeniable power of a socialist leveling of society would be even more consonant in a GATTACA world.

    Or do the elites just simply wall off their world, and ignore the teeming masses just outside their walls?

    I do find it very interesting to see the huge levels of capital flight from China, and anchor baby births in America. The perception that the West is safe from the troubles that beset the rest of the world is interesting, since your unease at the future is palpable. Or is it related to having hostages to destiny that sparks some of your unease?

    What happens when the lifeboat of the rest of the world sinks?
    How much wealth currently parked in the US would try to flee?

    What would happen if the US Government decided to aid the Chinese Government in the recovery of their “stolen” assets? So much is now online, and easy to find out…

  15. I also agree the oligarchy will demand increasing fealty from all levels above prole, and will use technology to foster even more orwellian outcomes using modern mass media techniques. Just watching the President flop around his campaign promises, and seeing the moving target of those promises is proof that truth is now plastic, and for sale.

    You have already been a victim of those mass media techniques. Just think on what kind of people must be in charge for the country to need him.

    Now, those people are still there with all their power and influence to obstruct his goals. He is not actually a God Emperor

  16. @Hector:
    “I’d be interested to know your thoughts.”

    My insight into Hungary is fairly limited (you’d have to ask “reiner tor” on Unz review that question), but I have difficulty imagining such a scenario of a real civil war between Orban’s people and Jobbik. In general I have my doubts about the possibility of real large-scale civil war in any European country…you need lots of motivated young men who know how to handle guns for something like this, and there aren’t that many among Europe’s native populations, due to demographic decline, the end of conscription etc. But I suppose other forms of conflict are quite likely.

  17. Spare us the self-pity, man. The piece was true description of your role as one of the progenitors of the “HBD” internet subculture and your work in spreading the gospel of “race realism” over at places like Vdare, Takimag, and the original GNXP with your fellow-travellers like John ” Don’t be a good samaritan to black people because they’ll kill you” Derbyshire, vicious racist Steve Sailer, etc. How exactly have you been smeared? Do you not believe that biological differences explain social inequalities between groups such as in wealth and cognitive abilities or you did in your impetuous youth and you’ve changed your thinking on the subject? Or do you still affirm the possibilty of genetics explaining differences in socially significant behavior and think people are just extrapolating beyond the evidence at this point? Or is that scientific facts are sound as you see them and just disagree with the politcal implications white nationalists and the alt-right have taken from them? If you’re not going to clarify the confusion your virtual paper trail has created about your position(s) on the subject, knock it off with persecution complex.

  18. Once I discovered what confirmation bias was, I started seeing it everywhere. I get blocked whenever I point that out to someone. The masses (left and right) are easily influenced by illusions, they all speak in tongues and worship their god’s using the same techniques. I don’t think we will see a Civil War but a cultural revolution similar to Mao’s. The right can’t organize like the left and are apt to keep things just the way they are right up until its’ too late. As Nietzsche once said, Politicians divide people into 2 classes, tools and enemies. The only tools that can be organized quickly come from the left. Love your blog and tweets.

  19. re following 5 people you disagree with or 500: People use twitter in different ways. E.g. I only follow a dozen or so people at a time. Five out of that would be a significant fraction.

  20. Hi Folks, The coming civil war will be very civil. Because both sides will have nukes or equivalent. (Or it will be a solitude.) Cheers, Guy

  21. Twitter itself seems like an ideal incubator for political polarization — it (a) encourages context- and nuance-free contributions (144-character limit), (b) amplifies extreme statements and promotes attention-seeking (re-tweets), (c) obscures identities and encourages sock-puppeting (bots, trolls, etc.) (d) promotes tribalism (following, blocking, etc.)

    It’s like the apotheosis of the “political debate by sound-bite” that started back in the era when TV was dominant.

    There are probably antidotes to Twitter-promoted political polarization, but the horse has probably already left the barn.

    I will say that I do like Twitter for things like traffic updates, reminders from my kids’ school, public-transit service notices, etc. I haven’t found anything else that provides a high enough signal-to-noise ratio to make spending much time there at all worthwhile.

  22. If you’re not going to clarify the confusion your virtual paper trail has created about your position(s) on the subject, knock it off with persecution complex.

    i talked to that journalist for 4 hours (3 conversations). i cleared up plenty of things. the paucity of quotes should tell you he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear.

  23. Mr. Khan,

    I applaud you, sir, for this very civil and succinct rebuke.

    Guy A Tipton,

    About this: “The coming civil war will be very civil. Because both sides will have nukes or equivalent.”

    You are, of course, aware that the United States and the Soviet Union fought many deadly battles via proxies for decades, which nearly destroyed some societies. And in some of them the two sides were direct combatants under very thin disguises (“advisors”).

    MAD, unfortunately, doesn’t stop wars. Some would argue that it just makes wars very dirty and messy if small. In any case, civil wars and conflicts between nuclear states, which are regional hegemons that prefer the status quo are very different animals.

  24. OK, if the reporter had an axe to grind and misrepresented if not outright refused to let you speak in your own words, would you mind elaborating your trajectory and current thinking on the subject of genetics and differences between populations in socially significant traits; if you already wrote a corrective to the Undark piece, could you point me to it? I know you’re a man who values his time and don’t want to inconveniece you but I’m sincerely, in good faith, curious about your thoughts because you possess an expertise that many if not all of the idiots pontificating in the HBDsphere don’t have.

  25. Sorry for the extra comment but as an afterthought: Razib, have you read Heredity, Race, and Society by L. C. Dunn and Theodosius Dobzhansky? I think it is a quite useful and exemplary attempt at trying to responsibly and carefully clarify the situation without bomb-throwing provocation or dogmatic denial

  26. if the reporter had an axe to grind and misrepresented if not outright refused to let you speak in your own words

    the primary issue is the the piece was already broadly written before he talked to me. my friends in the media suspected this before and after they read this. in hindsight he was mining me for anything he could use and he didn’t find it.

    i asked him beforehand if it was going to be a ‘hit piece’, and he said he wanted to interview me and allow me to tell my viewpoint. but as i note he barely used any quotes. i have all the conversations recorded…but they are mostly not super interesting to juicy.

    would you mind elaborating your trajectory and current thinking on the subject of genetics and differences between populations in socially significant traits;

    my current thinking has changed over the past year in that i’ve basically given up on liberalism and the modernist/positivist ideal as a viable path fwd for our society. it’s basically all about power and most people lie in their self-interest, as i should have 😉 i am far more cynical about the world than i used to be, and in part because of things i know now about what people do and don’t say in public. without at least an attempt to be honest about what you think i don’t think liberalism as a system has a long-term path fwd, and both left and right have become postmodernist (at least on the extremes, which dictate things).

    , curious about your thoughts because you possess an expertise that many if not all of the idiots pontificating in the HBDsphere don’t have.

    i repudiated the HBD movement a long time ago because of the stupidity issue. now it is basically no different than white nationalism by and large, and since i reject white nationalism i reject them.

    my attitude is that the science is first and foremost. the rest is commentary.

    but that’s my personal attitude. michel foucault’s ideas about the nature of epistemology seem to capture the spirit of the age.

    we live in a post-modern. modernism as a philosophical weltanschauung will have to persist as a somewhat secretive cult or club…as it has in the pre-modern age. the postmodernists of the left or right won’t embrace us but we need to make strategic alliances. i assume it will have to be someone in the cosmopolitan oligarchy who has a fixation with reality as opposed to fiction. the heresies of the left and right will have to keep a low profile, and only be maintained for those who care about truth as opposed to social approval (on the contrary, the incentives will be toward preference falsification).

    i have not read that book. i’ll check it out when i have time. though i know some of dobzhanksy’s thinking already.

  27. p.s. one of the links in the piece implied that i talked about how bushmen were subhuman. if you follow through the link you see i argue explicitly for the opposite. this behavior actually shocked several of my friends since they had read the original post and knew it was a misrepresentation. deborah blum was absolutely not apologetic about this sort of behavior when this was pointed out on twitter and suggested that readers would click the like and make their own judgments. since i have access to analytics and referrals for the post i know very few clicked the link. but i think the intent was to misrepresent (or, they didn’t bother reading the post they linked to). anyway, great science journalism 😉 no big surprise after some of the things i have learned about how many journalists work….

    as for why i didn’t ‘respond’, lol. you really think it would work? you don’t even post under your real name here, and you want me to respond point by point to this sort of slander? a lot of the comments making accusations against me obviously had barely read more than a paragraph or two in that long piece. they just saw my face plastered on it and that was that.

    the age of persuasion is over. it’s either propaganda or coercion. the world gets less disturbing when you acknowledge that. i think most journalists are far wiser than i have been about the nature of things.

  28. Twitter is very far from an accurate sample of the country as a whole. The people on Twitter could probably get a pretty good civil war going on among themselves. The rest of the country consists mainly of people who have no idea that these vehement disputes are even going on. Things could indeed get ugly. But don’t overestimate the likelihood due to sampling error.

  29. razib, we’re seeing your beloved neoliberal oligarchy in power, and look around you, it is a churning pit of shit! or is there some other ostensibly better form of oligarchy that you think is better?

  30. @Todd Klimson

    The right can’t organize like the left

    I think that this is true and I don’t know why. I am pretty sure that the rule that an organized group will make fast work of disparate individuals is still in place.

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