In the Roman Colosseum of old, when a gladiator fell, the watching mob often decided whether he died or lived. If the mob raised its thumbs up, he lived. Thumbs down meant he died. Twitter is the new Colosseum and its inhabitants are the new mob, deciding what opinions, facts and beliefs can be expressed, and what cannot.
As the range of opinions people are “allowed” to express in public (and increasingly in private) has narrowed rapidly in the past few years, Twitter has become the de facto arbiter of “acceptable” opinions. Those whose thumbs work the phones connected to it daily and world-wide unleash barrages of tweets demanding “wrong” views be taken down and that those who transgress issue grovelling apologies, be sacked from their (often unconnected) jobs, or both.
This mob of the righteous great and good on Twitter is demonstrably a small minority. Some 350 million people have Twitter accounts. If that sounds a lot, consider that 2.85 billion people have Facebook accounts. Even though Facebookers far outnumber the denizens of Twitter, consider also that the global population is 7.7 billion, so most people in the world are not on either of these platforms that dominate so much of public discourse (at least in the countries where they are not banned, principally China).
So who are these 350 million people who think they alone can decide whose views will be heard and whose will be cancelled in the “public square” which today is dominated by “social media” at the expense of the fast-shrinking old media of newspapers, radio and television, much less the “town hall” and “speaker’s corner” public meetings of not that long ago?
Clearly many tweeters are journalists. One hardly encounters a journalist now without a Twitter account. Check a few out. They are all there, tweeting at each other in an echo chamber that rebounds with what they put into the public square in their day jobs. Many tweeters are clearly celebrities. Many are academics. Many politicians are there; according to Wikipedia (which appears to be dominated by the same people who dominate Twitter), Barack Obama has the most Twitter followers of all (more than a third of everyone on Twitter!), despite relinquishing office in January 2017. But you have to be a politician with the “right” credentials. You won’t find Donald Trump on Twitter. He is banned. He’s also banned from Facebook, at the baying of the Twitter mob, which is slightly odd, because Twitter mobs hold their noses at Facebook, whose huddled masses they openly despise. You’d think they’d allow Trump there.
But put aside hearsay and observed opinion. This week the ABC in Australia gave us a valuable statistical view of the kind of people who dominate Twitter. The ABC runs an annual online survey of public opinion it calls Australia Talks. Starting in 2019, the 60,000 people claimed to be in its panel have been asked questions about the issues that motivate the ABC, such as climate change, gender, discrimination, inequality, national identity, politics and social media. The answers they give also tend to reflect the ABC’s world-view (which in turn reflects the views of its journalists on Twitter), but that’s just my opinion. You can judge for yourself.
In a survey of social media published this week as part of the 2021 Australia Talks results, the ABC revealed that Twitter is, as one would expect, used by a small minority of Australians (14 pc; incidentally more than I’d have guessed, given Twitter’s international total, but then the Australia Talks panel will be skewed towards ABC followers, many of whom would be tweeters).
Many of them are high-income folk, earning more than $A2500 weekly or $A130,000 a year. Of the Twitter users surveyed, more of them are Green voters than supporters of any other party (47pc of Greens use Twitter, compared with 38pc of Labor voters and 26pc of Scott Morrison’s supporters).
The survey also says 64pc of Australian tweeters have reported “offensive comment” and 74pc have boycotted a corporation because of “misbehaviour or offensive messaging.” That certainly gives weight to the view that Twitter sits like a Colosseum mob, thundering who will be heard, who will be cancelled, and who will lose their job. It seems simply extraordinary that such a high proportion of the small number of people who are affluent inner-urban dwellers not only spend massive amounts of their time on Twitter, but are also finding so much that offends them and then reporting and boycotting the transgressors.
While Australia Talks only covers Australia, I suspect from my Kiwi observations that a similar survey in Aotearoa New Zealand would produce similar results, as would surveys in the UK and probably many other countries where the public square is dominated by the Twitter mob.
Those who dwell on Twitter truly are the Thought Police. Offend them at your peril.