In 2018, nonprofit group More in Common launched a study called “The Perception Gap.” A sample of 2,100 voters from both sides of the political aisle was asked after the 2018 midterms what they understood about their political opponents’ platforms, and it revealed that most had exaggerated or inaccurate perceptions of their opponents’ beliefs.
It showed that Republicans overwhelmingly believed just half of Democrats were “proud to be American,” lower than the real eight-in-10 figure. Similarly, Democrat respondents said that only half of Republicans believe that racism still exists, when eight in 10 GOP voters actually expressed concerns about modern-day racial discrimination. What’s more, nine in 10 Republicans believed that “properly controlled” immigration could be good for the country, while Democrats predicted that the figure would be just five in 10.
The study also found that those who read the news “most of the time” had a perception of their political opponents’ views that was three times more distorted than those who read the news only “now and then.”
Why is this relevant to Twitter and Elon Musk? Because Twitter embodies this Perception Gap, and in turn, promotes extremism and facilitates radicalization.
I know a thing or two about radicalization, too. As a teenager growing up in a working-class town in England, I became active in Britain’s biggest white nationalist political party. After seeing the impact of large-scale immigration in the former mining town where I grew up, I lent my support to a political party that attracted almost one million votes from similar working-class parts of England in the 2009 European elections. Absent political representation from the three main parties on issues like immigration, the British National Party attracted hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise never have strayed from the Labour Party.
And once you’re involved in that white nationalist echo chamber, it’s very hard to get out.
My experience in that movement compelled me to write my latest book, Monster of Their Own Making, and also allows me to more easily recognize important characteristics of the radicalization process. In Twitter and its content moderation policies, I see the same process of radicalization that drove my friends to kill themselves or become white nationalist terrorists. The platform actively pushes some of the world’s most radically left-wing academics, reporters, and activists deeper into their partisan hatred of conservatives.
Extremism typically doesn’t occur in a void. It is driven by grievances both real and perceived, and also by a refusal from political elites, the media, and social media to allow these problems to even be discussed.
In my case it was immigration and the emergence of what is now known as “woke” culture. For the overwhelmingly young white men who are attracted by the far right – the real far right – on Twitter, those grievances include the censorship of criticism of woke radicalism. From trans issues to election integrity, when these issues cannot be discussed publicly it gives credence to the arguments of the white nationalists and antisemites, effectively proving the far right, “right.”
Why, young white nationalists ask, can you not criticize certain ideas online? And what else might they be hiding?
When Twitter blocked the sharing of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop just days before the 2020 presidential election, it embedded the idea that the social media platform is corrupt, and that Democrats and left-leaning social media executives will defend corruption to the hilt as long as it means Republicans are hurt. But that’s not necessarily representative of Democrats overall, and one poll even suggested that Biden would have lost to Trump in 2020 if the Hunter Biden laptop story had been properly reported by the mainstream press.
Twitter has become an embodiment of the Perception Gap.
The platform has helped establish, and continues to facilitate, a narrative that one half of the country is the enemy of the other half. When Twitter leftists do something egregious, it’s easy for many on the right to assume that it’s supported overwhelmingly by Democrat voters. And once a part of this online echo chamber, it’s just as hard for radical leftists to escape as it is for white nationalists to leave behind their own radicalism.
Leftists on Twitter don’t want to forgive conservatives who found themselves in the gutter of their side’s most extreme political wing, nor are they willing to accept that their censorious attitudes may have contributed to their radicalization. Meanwhile, conservatives want vengeance against the liberals who silenced them.
With so many Twitter users permanently plugged into the news cycle – something the Perception Gap study showed makes activists less likely to understand their opponents – the platform has become a dangerous hugbox facilitated by a content moderation team that is apparently just as incapable of understanding or caring about the concerns of those being banned. Perhaps some really do believe all of those being silenced are neo-Nazis and perhaps others enjoy the power trip, but this “whack a mole” approach of banning every “problematic” person online does not have the effect that Twitter probably thinks it does. It makes the problem worse.
When immigration finally became a mainstream talking point in British politics, championed by more moderate politicians like Nigel Farage and some major figures within the Conservative Party, the British National Party lost its two members of the European Parliament, its membership dwindled, and the party has since become a shell with just a handful of members remaining.
Elon Musk’s Twitter buyout, therefore, presents a positive opportunity to quell this reciprocal radicalization online, to air our grievances publicly and to see clearly what is real and what is not. If the platform’s content moderation policies are radically reformed, we may be able to escape this cycle of left-wing users growing increasingly angry at Republicans online and offline, and conservatives being pushed further into underground extremist communities.
That may, however, depend on just how many left-wing users follow through on their promise to abandon the platform once Musk’s purchase is confirmed. For everyone’s sake, I hope that number is small.