Dramageddon: The Virtual Civil War
How social media toxifies discourse
There's a sense that the US is irredeemably divided, that it’s split into a pair of parallel societies, one red, one blue. And the tension between these estranged twins seems to be escalating toward an inevitable showdown, a second American Civil War.
At least, this is the impression you’d get if you follow mainstream discourse. 2022 has seen several popular books—such as Barbara F Walter's How Civil Wars Start and Stephen Marche's The Next Civil War—warn that social media has polarized the US to such an extent that war is a distinct possibility. Such fears have been echoed by the corporate media; an analysis by the New York Times found that online use of the term "civil war" has exploded. The Times has played its own part in the explosion, regularly talking up the threat of civil war, such as here and here and here. Meanwhile, a recent Time opinion piece declared that civil war is coming, while another for the Guardian claimed it's already happening. And in a UC Davis poll of over 8000 Americans, half of them said they expect a civil war in the next couple of years.
Should we be concerned? Yes, but not because any of these people are correct. Social media is having a much stranger effect on people than merely pushing them toward war; it's convincing them they’re headed for war when in fact they aren't. And among the victims of this corrosive delusion are countless influential opinion-makers, as well as everyone influenced by them.
I first felt the creeping dread of civil war shortly after I started tweeting in 2016. That year was a tumultuous one online, with the rise of Trump fueling a bitter culture war. Despite not even being American, it became impossible for me to avoid the verbal crossfire between #MAGA advocates and #TheResistance. Soon, the conflict was dominating my feed, and filling me with a crippling sense of hopelessness. I pictured a world of frothing, wild-eyed lunatics finger-stabbing their keyboards in ALL CAPS, and I feared they’d soon switch their keyboards for guns. The more online conflict I witnessed, the more I’d feel a gnawing hatred, not just for those I deemed my political enemies, but for humanity generally. And, despite the fact that most of the bickering was between Americans, I developed a sense that my own home, the UK, was polarized beyond hope.
This exhausting feeling of division, despair, and doom—which I’ve since dubbed “dramageddon”—would be strongest in the aftermath of lengthy sessions on Twitter, but would fade whenever I went outside and interacted with locals, who’d invariably remind me that in the real world most people were calm, friendly, and largely united.
Indeed, a 2021 Pew survey of 10,000 US social media users found that only 9% of people shared or posted political content online. “Bashing the fash” or “owning the libs” simply wasn’t something the average person cared about.
So why, then, did Twitter make me feel like civil war was inevitable? What was this toxic sense of dread and hopelessness that began to overwhelm me after a few hours of doomscrolling?
To understand dramageddon, we must consider the nature of social media toxicity. The original thinking was that online interactions are frequently much nastier than real world conversations because anonymity and distance reduce people’s inhibitions and make them more likely to lash out, much like road rage.
Certainly, the format of social media, and particularly of Twitter, can bring out the worst in people. But this isn’t the main reason that online discourse is so often toxic. The truth is that social media applies two distorting filters to our vision: it attracts toxic people and it amplifies them. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The nature of social media as a realm of pure appearance, in which one can easily deceive others, makes it highly attractive to narcissists. Narcissism is pathological self-centeredness, and it’s characterized by a strong sense of entitlement, a need for attention and social validation, and a lack of concern for the needs of others. In order to get maximum attention, narcissists will often engage in histrionics (theatrical behavior), catastrophizing (exaggerating) threats against them. They are therefore frequently surrounded by an aura of drama.
Research suggests narcissists are more likely to be political activists. Further, the narcissistic trait of entitlement is linked to political correctness and alt-right attitudes, and may therefore help explain both the woke and the red-pilled, manifesting as either a victim-complex (“Look at me, I’m being censored/discriminated against!”) or a savior-complex (“Look at me, I’m standing up to the groomers/bigots!”)
Now, here's the thing: research suggests that people with narcissistic traits are more likely to use social media, and more likely to have social media clout. A meta-analysis of 62 studies (N = 13,430) found that narcissism was positively correlated with time spent on social media, frequency of tweets, and number of followers. Narcissists likely find social media a useful (and addictive) way of acquiring the social validation they so deeply crave.
It appears that it’s this small group of needy narcissists who drive the majority of toxicity online. According to a meta-analysis of eight studies (N = 8,434), online political discussions attract superficial, status-driven people who act as horridly online as they do offline. This finding was corroborated by a large study of 36,000 communities on Reddit, which found that less than 1% of communities start 74% of conflicts.
To understand how a minority of people can drive the majority of online toxicity, we must consider social media’s second visual filter. Not only does it attract narcissists, but it also amplifies them.
Back in 2017, I noticed that tweets in which I viciously attacked others received more engagement than ones in which I tried to be reasonable:
My suspicions have since been confirmed by research. A 2021 study analyzed 2.7 million tweets and Facebook posts, and found that social media posts that attack the opposing political tribe receive twice as many shares as posts that champion one’s own tribe. Furthermore, each additional word referencing a rival idea or person (e.g. ‘Biden’ or ‘Liberal’ if coming from a Republican source) increased the likelihood of a post being shared by an average of 67%.
The high engagement that online belligerence receives has a double effect: it means that toxic posts are more widely circulated, but it also means that people who act toxically are rewarded. Rewards are incentives, and an analysis of 12.7 million tweets found that people who received high engagement for online nastinesss tended to repeat the behavior. Now combine this with the fact that everyone, narcissist or otherwise, is most motivated to post when they are aggrieved, panicked, or enraged, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Social media both attracts and amplifies dramatic, narcissistic people, making them seem far more representative of humanity than they really are. Just as a magnifying glass focuses diffuse sunlight into a blistering beam, so Twitter focuses background chatter into the clamor of war. What we see on our feeds and in our replies is not reality but a dramatization of it, a tragic tale played by a cast of keyboard warriors and perpetual victims that eventually leaves us hopeless and exhausted.
This is dramageddon, and it’s why so many cultural elites are obsessed with a fictional civil war; they've been fooled by Twitter's reality-filters to believe that theatrical online conflict is indicative of real-world sentiment.
None of this would be problem if it were inconsequential, but the consequence of believing that people are extremer than they are is that it makes you extreme. In a longitudinal study incorporating over 16 million comments on CNN.com, researchers found that people who saw antisocial “troll” posts from others became embittered and were then more likely to act antisocially themselves.
So it should come as no surprise that, even though people as a whole have not become significantly more polarized, those who routinely engage in politics on Twitter have. A longitudinal study of 679,000 Twitter users over 8 years found that they’d steadily become more prone to retweeting only their own side's tweets, and following only their own side's accounts.
Twitter's political users are a minority of a minority—but they’re a highly influential one. Many of them are opinion-makers and policymakers. And so when they become convinced of impending civil war, their sense of peril seeps out from Twitter into the world at large, poisoning others.
If fears of civil war were transmitted far enough, they could theoretically spark an actual civil war, but it's highly unlikely. Dramageddon spreads quickly among terminally online political pundits, but let’s face it: most polarized intellectuals are too cowardly to fight for real, having historically relied on the common people to shed blood on their behalf. And the common people, living their lives far from Twitter in the real world, show no indication of being polarized or even interested in politics outside of what impacts them directly.
The more credible threat posed by dramageddon is much simpler than civil war: it is, to put it frankly, turning our brains to shit. By presenting us with a pantomime of reality performed by trolls and narcissists, and by convincing us that this pantomime is based on a true story, social media is afflicting us with a chronic paranoia that dements logic, destroys goodwill, and obstructs dialogue.
So what’s the solution?
Any hope that Elon could solve this problem died shortly after his takeover of Twitter, when he revealed, through his wild online behavior, that he’s a victim of dramageddon:
Sure, wokeness is a problem. But “nothing else matters”? Really? This is the kind of thing one might tweet after a week of viewing nothing but Libs of TikTok, and it’s just as histrionic as the liberal media’s alarm about Civil War 2.
Given Elon’s business record, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s increasingly clear that he’s easily influenced by culture war nonsense, and, given the carelessness with which he tweets (and apparently thinks), it’s not crazy to fear that he may one day go full-Kanye. Sadly, then, we can’t depend on the Chief Twit to fix this, because he’s part of the problem that needs the fix.
So if we can’t rely on Twitter to fix Twitter, should we just leave? Many have already done so. Among them are Claire Lehmann and Sam Harris, who both closed their Twitter accounts the day before I decided to return to Twitter. Sam gave his reasons in a video, describing the early symptoms of dramageddon: “It was showing me the worst of other people, in a way that was ... distorting my perception of humanity.” Claire gave her own reasons in an article for The Australian, and also on Twitter itself before she left, where she mentioned the attacks on Sam and questioned whether any of it was really worth it.
Disclaimer: I like Sam and Claire. I’ve valued Sam’s takes for nearly two decades, and I respect Claire’s thoughtfulness and integrity (I also like Claire personally for believing in my writing when I was still unsure of it, which helped convince me to be a writer).
Since I’ve followed Sam and Claire closely on Twitter, I’ve seen the kind of vitriol they’re routinely subject to, and it’s substantially more than most. They’re among the few members of the IDW who never succumbed to audience capture, but unfortunately, their refusal to become part of a tribe has made life on Twitter hard for them, as they’re now frequently attacked by both left and right, and they don’t typically have an angry mob of their own to defend them.
So I understand their reasons for leaving Twitter. But I think the path they chose is the second-best solution.
See, Twitter, for all its faults, is an unparalleled snapshot of the world. It’s often the first place news breaks, and it’s the best way to hear directly what important people are saying instead of what journalists are saying they’re saying. Being able to read thoughts and follow events in real time across the world is a power past generations would've considered magic. Twitter, at its best, is clairvoyance and telepathy.
Sure, a minority of narcissists are disproportionately amplified by the platform, which can be maddening, but here’s the thing: since they’re a minority, they can be largely filtered out with just a little curation.
The most important consideration is who you follow. There are so many reasonable and informative people on Twitter: @Ayishat_Akanbi, @david_perell, @DegenRolf, @ethanmollick, @IonaItalia, @JuliaGalef, @Kpaxs, @mmay3r, @rainmaker1973, @SarahTheHaider, @SalomeSibonex, @SteveStuWill, @TheStoicEmperor, to name just a few.
But just following the right accounts isn’t enough. You must also make heavy use of the mute and block buttons. Bad information is not just useless, it also muscles out good information from your field of vision—noise displaces signal. Therefore, by not blocking bad tweeters you are blocking better tweeters.
Mute those who peddle lies or trivialities. Block those who contribute to dramageddon: the trolls, narcissists, and rageaholics. Use block lists to silence those who post toxic tweets and those who like and retweet them. Above all, never allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into thinking blocking is censorship; no one is entitled to your attention. The cost of an uncensored internet is that you must take responsibility for what you see. By not curating your feed you become a prisoner of other people as surely as if your feed was censored. A poorly curated Twitter feed is among the worst possible sources of information, but a well-curated feed is among the very best.
I hope Sam and Claire will consider returning to Twitter, partly for their own sake but mostly for the public square’s, because amid the surge in online polarization we need calm and sane voices more than ever. There won’t be a civil war in the West any time soon, but there is a hysteria around civil war that could prove just as troublesome.
Twitter, the home of narcissists, will always be divisive theater, but with a little curation it can be its own solution, for ultimately we’ll beat those who wish to divide us not by fleeing into seclusion but by connecting with those still willing to talk.