Twitter: the risk of intellectual obesity and radicalisation

If you eat refined sugar in large amounts it can make you physically obese.  The same goes for reading refined information in large amounts: there is a risk that using Twitter can make you intellectually obese.  And the result of this can be dangerous radicalisation.  Not for everyone, but for those who are vulnerable to this.

I started using Twitter in about May or June to distribute some cartoons I had devised about climate policy.  I then started following some writers and journalists on the topics of environment and veganism.  I started coming across tweets about animal cruelty – these led me from the torture of dogs in the United States to the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa, to the way the Chinese are destroying the world’s wildlife for fashion and medicine … and then to the grotesque murder of whales and dolphins by people in Japan and the Faroe Islands.

Day by day over the summer I read a pure, intense, undiluted and uncontested stream of horror – with no counterclaim, critical analysis or nuance.  Refined, concentrated evil was injected directly into my brain hour by hour.  There were no obstacles or imperfections or resistance in the information to slow that stream.  And, unless I took the time to think hard, there was nothing for my brain to work on, to chew on.  There was nothing like fibre or complex molecules in fruit which slow the release of sugar into my bloodstream.  The stuff just went straight to the mankind-is -evil receptor in my brain and painted it a fiery red.

And I steadily felt myself thinking of a word I had heard when people talk about Muslims and the Middle East: radicalisation.  The intense, rich, sweet rush of man’s evil treatment of animals filled me with such anger and loathing that my thoughts on what to do about it became more and more radical.  There are plenty of Chinese people and plenty of Japanese, but not so many elephants.  So let’s hope that Ebola does its job and avoids non-humans.  Is there really any difference between the American big game-hunter who kills wildlife for trophies and the Islamic State fighter who hunts Christians for trophies – ultimately it is just about status and self-fullfilment.  Why should land-owners who tolerate the slaughter of hen harriers be allowed to keep owning their land?  In what way are Faroese who cut up whales in the name of tradition any better than Somalians who doing female circumcision also in the name of tradition?

These are radical thoughts even though they can be supported with a certain, harsh reason.  Aside from whether the thoughts are defensible or not, one thing was clear to me.  I would not have arrived so easily and lazily at them if it was not for Twitter.

In the end I just stopped reading Twitter in August and my radicalisation and the associated stress and anxiety quickly dissipated.

[In a way that’s good.  But in a way it’s bad, too: I don’t pay attention any more to the terrible things going on around the world, and I feel that a responsible citizen should do.  Although I am not sure what it means to be a responsible citizen if there is not a lot you can do about the Chinese nouveau riche or Faroese fishermen.]

As a parallel to the way sugar combined with lack of activity make you physically obese, I was thinking that intense, uncontested messaging through Twitter makes you intellectually obese: you get bloated with a one-sided world view, and that can lead to radicalisation.  Unless you are by nature critical and sceptical, it is terribly difficult to defend yourself against this: to have the mental energy and discipline to come up with counter-arguments or context and perspective to each tweet, especially when broadly they espouse a world-view that you are sympathetic to.

You can’t blame Twitter for this, as you can’t blame an AK47 for a terrorist attack.  But if I am at risk of radicalisation via Twitter, I can reasonably assume that millions of others are.  Then it reasonably becomes a matter of public policy to understand the risks of intellectual obesity and the risks of Twitter (and other sources of pure, uncontested rhetoric) as an agent of radicalisation.

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