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┬áMaajid 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.