Social media fundamentally influenced the way fans enjoyed England’s success at Russia 2018. From phone to phone, a tide of national euphoria spread at a rate previously unseen. With each story, photo and tweet, the belief rapidly spread that it truly was “coming home”. In this instance, social media served as a wonderful unifier and highlighted how such platforms can benefit human interaction. When it comes to politics, a far more hysterical rhetoric has ensued.

The vanguard of this is Twitter. The innocent blue bird has become the obnoxious teenager of social media, full of anger and stubbornness. On Brexit, we are seeing its most toxic effects – it has turned the debate into something tribal, nasty and explosive. Respect for individuals and institutions have steadily been eroded. But if we are to attempt to overcome this seemingly endemic process, it is worth comprehending how this process has developed.

At its most basic level, social media is a membrane. It allows approval and disapproval to pass through it to the prerogative of a user.  In the case of Twitter, the default position of the selective barrier is open. You may know the person you are interacting with but often you do not. In the best of times, Twitter creates an opportunity for the effective interchange of ideas and the reduction of knowledge deficits. In the worst, it allows for an impersonal method of conversing, one where it is far easier for the decency usually attached to face-to-face interaction to evaporate.

On Brexit, it is evident that there are diverse positions with much to say. But Twitter creates circumstances where the opinions and analysis of users are reduced to a mere 280 characters. Perhaps even more damaging is the time pressure that tweets have on them. The time-sensitive nature of Twitter, with new information arriving each second, demands an almost instant reaction. While concise writing and speed of thought are skills to be valued, in this case, it can lead to poorly substantiated output.

Increasingly, this has become the modus operandi in the virtual coliseum of Twitter. For no output is this truer than that of the online troll. The troll is less interested in engaging with a user’s words or argument, and far more concerned about who they are, where they are from, or who they represent. Their natural tweet is an ad hominem attack. The personal and abusive nature of such behaviour slowly breeds resentment and anger. 

The degradation of standards slowly spills over from trolls to ordinary users. Local councillors, commentators, journalists and academics snap and begin engaging in tit-for-tat disagreements. Worse than merely demeaning their own output, such users may ceremoniously quit Twitter, thus depriving the knowledge sphere of positive attributes. The ultimate effect is that respect and quality slowly seep out until all we are left with is vitriol.

Twitter is a wonderful fountain of information. Never before has information been so rapidly distributed to as wide an audience. Never has it been so easy to see opinions and learn from them. But it is not always used as such an effective tool. Instead, for most users, it has become an echo chamber. This is less about the accuracy of the information you encounter – you may follow leading experts whose every output is peer-reviewed. Rather, it is about the variance of opinion and the engagement with challenging viewpoints. If you only follow those with whom you agree and support, the likely result is an increasingly entrenched and narrow understanding.

It’s vital that we encounter ideas that challenge us. Often, we can process counterarguments, dismiss them and continue to operate with renewed confidence. Just occasionally we may unearth something of interest, a point or comment that forces us to pause and recalculate. This is a central message of dialectical thinking.

And so, we arrive in an environment of buttressed perspectives developed from information of questionable veracity. Where users seek to engage with people not to increase and improve knowledge but to abuse and undermine them. Slowly, respectful and adroit criticism is lost within a moral abattoir. Those on Twitter who can lead by example instead revel in their insular popularity, quote tweeting and orchestrating pile-ons.

This is the environment in which the Brexit debate is occurring. Twitter in one sense is a catalyst for unity and division. In a wider sense, social media has become a revolving door of joy and despair; an unnerving and novel experience which you cannot easily escape, nor do you really want to.

Written by Jack Martin

Jack Martin is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, embarking on a Masters degree this September in International Relations at the London School of Economics.