Twitter and the Fall of Critical Thinking

April 29, 2019

Below is the first essay I wrote for my freshman writing course. At the time, I was frustrated with some of the discourse I saw on Twitter. Though I believe many of my points stand, I have since found a much nicer community and have different thoughts about the platform as a whole. Also, please excuse the stale academic tone. You know how it goes.

Twitter’s mission statement is simple: give everyone the power to share their ideas without barriers. However, as a free social media platform, it harbors an ulterior motive: to maximize our time on and engagement with the app, and hence maximize its growth and profits. Since its inception, Twitter has grown into a few unspoken but important roles; it has become one of the world’s biggest news platforms and a world-wide forum for public debate. In its chase for user engagement, it is turning our attention into a commodity to be sold to advertisers—a process which is degrading our attention spans and contributing to the generational plight of impatience and laziness in analyzing data and thinking critically.

In order to fit the tweet limit, news organizations on Twitter must oversimplify their stories. They also have instrumental reason to optimize their tweets for engagement. The combination of oversimplification and engagement optimization leads to an ill-informed yet overconfident public complacent in their self-education. Although optimization for engagement is not necessarily unique to Twitter as a goal for news organizations, the app’s features such as the tweet character limit and the account verification process exacerbate its negative effects. News and polarizing debate on Twitter support the implicitly held belief that when forming opinions, thoroughly educating oneself about the topic at hand is unnecessary.

Tweets are limited to 280 characters, or approximately forty to fifty words. Because of this, the amount of detail that a news organization can add to the already limited headline of their article is very small. We live in a highly nuanced world, and some news articles can require well over 1000 words to adequately cover a story. The 280 character limit forces news organizations to reduce the information in their article twentyfold. Compression of this order inherently implies the loss of essential information. For example, a recent BBC tweet states: “3D printing technology has evolved to a level where we can print motorbikes!”

3D printing technology has evolved to a level where we can print motorbikes! 😱🏍pic.twitter.com/TlHCi3Ofrk

— BBC (@BBC) January 29, 2019

A casual reader will interpret this as “3D printers can now print functional motorbikes.” If they are unfamiliar with 3D printing technology, they may even jump to the conclusion that the motorbike is printed in one session. Only after fully watching the supplemented video would they understand that this is not at all true; 15 separate parts must be printed and then hand-assembled. Additionally, the printer cannot print the engine and battery—two of the most important functional components of the bike!

This one instance demonstrates that not only does such drastic compression leave out essential information, but it is also prone to spreading blatant misinformation. Since many users engage with news tweets but do not click on the articles or supplemental material, let alone read them thoroughly, this oversimplification is often all that they are left with. Moreover, they go about their daily lives feeling relatively confident having any understanding of the topic at all, because they do not realize just how incomplete this understanding is.

This asymmetry between confidence and knowledge is a phenomenon akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect—a cognitive bias in which a person’s confidence about their knowledge or skill-level in a discipline tends to skyrocket to a maximum after a brief introduction to it, and then steadily declines as they gain experience or knowledge. Due to this bias (and our diminishing attention spans), users forego further self-education in the topic, which also decreases the chance of progressive discourse down the road.

The negative effects of oversimplification on public understanding are vastly amplified by engagement optimization on the content of news tweets. From the conception of their accounts on Twitter, news organizations have one major goal: gain followers. Besides gaining influence, gaining followers also means increasing the chance of becoming verified. Although Twitter does not disclose much about their verification process, they claim on their site that “an account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest,” implying that the user must have a significant following.

Verification on Twitter signals a position of social influence, and, in the realm of news, is seen as a proxy for reliability and authority (most news platform Twitter accounts are verified). Gaining followers also means maximizing the reach of their articles and becoming more competitive with larger organizations.

The best way to gain followers organically is to optimize for tweet engagement. This means tailoring tweets to maximize the chance of them being liked, retweeted, and talked about. News organizations have to play the clickbait game if they want to stay relevant and beat competitors for our attention. Tweets become sensationalized oversimplifications of the ideas they tackle. Truths become exaggerated into half-truths, and sometimes even outright falsehoods, in the exchange of accuracy for engagement.

A noteworthy second-order effect of engagement optimization is that news organizations will deliberately chase unimportant but sensational “stories” because they maximize engagement. Classic examples are articles about fad diets and exercise routines, celebrity scandals, and relationship/sex advice. Because a user’s attention is limited, chasing these pseudo-stories further decreases the chance of their exposure to issues of national or global importance. When organizations do post about these pressing issues, users often take a mental shortcut to (the feeling of) understanding by only absorbing the content of the tweet and article headline. When they later engage in discourse and debate, they lack a thorough understanding of the topic and fail to change others’ perspectives or learn from the discussion. Part of this is due to the perverse incentives created in debates by likes and retweets.

Polarizing debate on Twitter rewards fallacious logic and snark over civil discussion and critical thinking, perpetuating complacency in self-education. Engagement bias (the conflation of tweet engagement with validity of argument) contributes to the popular “Us vs Them” paradigm of discourse under which tarnishing “Them” is rewarded over genuine attempts at the search for truth.

The number of likes and retweets a tweet gets is easily conflated with the validity of the idea expressed within it, whether it is a conscious decision or not. Higher engagement implies a greater number of people agree with the content of the tweet, and people are quick to fall for arguments which appeal to the public. As a result, “appeal to celebrity” is especially prevalent on Twitter, which is a platform dominated by public figures and celebrities.

Oversimplification also plays a role in tarnishing the quality of discourse: well-developed refutations require more articulation than ad hominem attacks, which are short and snappy. An articulate refutation requires a thread of tweets due to the tweet limit, and hesitance to retweet and like grows with the length and complexity of the thread. A corollary to this is that snarky tweets are rewarded more because they are simpler, funnier, and more “shareable.” Consequently, engagement bias and the tweet limit contribute to the fragility of civility in discussion. Once a snarky comment or fallacious argument is made, it is extremely difficult for the conversation to remain Socratic. Other users will reward such comments, and sincere refutations will be relatively discouraged. The first fallacious comment serves as a sort of event horizon; past this, the discussion begins its inevitable fall into an anti-intellectual black hole.

CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey recently tweeted in reply to the POTUS for their discussion at the White House about keeping the public conversation open and civil: “Twitter is here to serve the entire public conversation, and we intend to make it healthier and more civil. Thanks for the discussion about that.”

Thank you for the time. Twitter is here to serve the entire public conversation, and we intend to make it healthier and more civil. Thanks for the discussion about that.

— jack (@jack) April 23, 2019

A user by the name of Pé (@4everNeverTrump) responded with a heated thread of tweets cursing Jack: “Are you fucking kidding me dude? Trump literally tweeted out propaganda videos attacking one of the very few Muslims in Congress *days* after someone was arrested for threatening her life... and you're looking to make this place more civil? … Fuck you and your civility." Jack’s original tweet had over 9,000 likes, and Pé’s thread garnered around 8,000 likes. In response, a Frank Marco responded, “You seem nice,” gaining 2,800 likes. No substantive discussion ensued. Evidently, Pé’s tweets were rewarded precisely because they were emotionally charged and harsh. Once the ad hominem attack followed, all chance at civil discourse was lost, as Frank’s comment humorously demonstrates.

Fuck you and your civility.

Also, don't fucking get rid of the "like" button. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Oh, that's right... you're meeting with Trump to discuss "civility"... there's a lot wrong with you.

— Pé (@4everNeverTrump) April 23, 2019

Unfortunately, this anti-intellectual black hole of discourse resonates strongly with our instinctive tribalist nature. As a result of our craving for acceptance into a “tribe,” we conform to popular ideas and unite against a common enemy or idea. The reinforced paradigm of discourse is “Us versus Them,” and civility quickly disintegrates. The search for truth is discarded in favor of sensational roasting of the “other side.” The majority of polarizing debate on Twitter resides in this nasty realm.

Fully realizing how these different paradigms of the app’s popular use affect the user can be quite harrowing. Public figures and common people alike are engaging in feisty debate regarding topics about which they are confident but know very little, news organizations are contributing to this confident ignorance, and users reward snark more than they do productive discourse. The result is a public which is trained not to research and think deeply before forming opinions, but to join a tribe and fight the other side.

Although we examined how some of the app’s features contribute to the problem, Twitter cannot be held directly accountable for how its users decide to use the app. So how do we fight this plight of ignorance?

One seemingly obvious remedial solution would be to increase the tweet character limit—as discussed, it is partially responsible for the spread of misinformation and fragility of civility in discourse. However, Twitter has already extended their character limit from 140 to 280 characters, and any further extension may undermine the “bite-sized” premise of the app.

Another possible solution would be to make Twitter a subscription service. It would then not have to contribute to the plight by relying on attention maximizing algorithms to make profit. This is the same approach some news organizations are taking to maintain quality of content. However, it is highly unlikely that Twitter would give up its status as a free app, which has allowed it to grow to nearly a fourth of the Internet user base.

The honest answer is that no one solution will absolve us of this problem. It is deeply ingrained in our society, and is only worsening as attention maximizing technologies continue to reward us with bite-sized dopamine snacks. Twitter is only an amplification device for this extant plight. Maybe the best thing we can do is simply make people aware of the problem, so they can work to ascend the instant gratification trap, and begin to educate themselves further. By using our online voices to promote the voices of other critical thinkers, discourage trolls and uncivil users, and educate people, we can shift the culture and how users ultimately interact with the app. In the era of fake news and propaganda, it is becoming increasingly important for us to promote an educated, skeptical, and civil public. Social media like Twitter are a promising place to start.

Thanks to my writing professor Teddy Lance for talking me through my ideas and giving detailed feedback on drafts of this essay.