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Trapped By The Bird App

6 min read

If Twitter dies, the way British politics currently works might die with it, argues Ryan Broderick, who has reported on the impacts of social media on societies around the globe.

Much has been written over the years about the radicalizing nature of platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Those are the platforms that are top of mind when it comes to discussing issues like far-right extremism in the UK, the chaotic lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories driving scepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine and the anti-5G vandalism that swept through small towns in Britain in 2020. 

But rarely is the UK's relationship to Twitter scrutinized the same way, even as it has all but swallowed the country's political and media establishment over the years.

The disastrous first months of Elon Musk's ownership of Twitter, however, have users around the world questioning what a would without the app might mean for their country's political landscape. What would happen if the app suddenly suffered a large-enough outage to kill it tomorrow? What would Westminster do without its favorite microblogging app? 

Well, to answer that, let's first start with exactly what UK political Twitter looks like. According to available data, the prevailing wisdom is correct: the UK loves Twitter. It's Twitter's sixth biggest user base by country, used by around a third of the UK's internet users.

But the relationship goes deeper than that: the UK media and its politicians love Twitter even more. Which means the app – more so than in other large extremely online western democracies such as the US, Brazil, and countries in Europe – drives discourse in the UK to a dizzying degree.

The platform has a trickle-down effect in most countries it’s used in, where its relatively small number of users create content that influences culture, media, and politics. But that system already existed in the UK thanks to the country's still-very-vibrant newspaper culture. Here Twitter has taken hold of the top of that media environment. Everything on Twitter becomes a story in the papers, which in turn becomes a battleground in parliament.  

Almost every single MP in Parliament is on the app and journalists in the UK tweet more times a day, more in aggregate, and receive more tweets than their counterparts in Germany or Australia, according to a 2018 study.

As for who is actually on Twitter in the UK, another 2019 study found that British Twitter users tend to skew towards Labour. And the politicians that use it do, as well. The number of MPs on Twitter grew from 51 to a staggering 593 over the last 10 years. According to a report from last month, the majority of the most active MPs on Twitter are Labour.

And the site's role in progressive British activism is palpable. "Twitter, for me, has offered a vital education," columnist and activist Owen Jones told The Guardian last month. "A means for otherwise marginalized voices to gain a platform which, frankly, they were mostly denied in mainstream media outlets."

But while British Twitter users lean left, the site's code, apparently, does not. In fact, the platform's algorithms promote the opposite political points of view disproportionately. A study conducted by Twitter last year titled, "Algorithmic Amplification of Politics on Twitter," found that in the UK there was "a statistically significant difference favoring the political right wing" in Twitter's recommendation algorithms. 

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the importance of Twitter for promoting (or over-promoting) conservative politics in the UK, that when a social media marketing firm called Westminster Digital launched several years ago, it swiftly ended up working with many of the biggest names in the Tory party, including Boris Johnson, the most-followed politician in the UK. 

As for what MPs are actually seeing on the site, according to an investigation by Politico in 2020, BBC's Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson and presenter Andrew Neil are the journalists most-followed by MPs on Twitter. That said, according to a 2017 study from the Reuters Institute, the largest, most-followed news outlets and journalists aren't necessarily the most-engaged with on Twitter.

As in countries like the US, Brazil, and India, Twitter in Britain has become something like a central nervous system for the deeper, darker corners of the UK internet. While the platform had made progress over the last few years in banning far right, anti-LGBT and other undesirable characters, Musk’s decision to restore 60,000 previously banned accounts threatens to undo this. 

While British Twitter users lean left, the site's code, apparently, does not

And it's this contradictory information ecosystem — overwhelmingly liberal and left-leaning users bombarded with and posting in opposition to right-wing content — that has been fertile ground for the British media. The online operations of papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun have learned how to farm the site for outrage-bait with factory-like precision, in turn generating their own high levels of engagement. It has made good copy for their dead tree counterparts too.

In just the last month, the Daily Mail, porting over America's culture war to the UK, has published over 15 stories with the word "woke" in the headline, accusing anything and everything of being part of a leftist conspiracy, including Milwaukee district attorneys, investment firm BlackRock, a possible upcoming remake of the film Fatal Attraction, and former Disney CEO Bob Chapek

This, in turn, has created a feedback loop with official messaging from the Conservative party. Tory minister Oliver Dowden has been particularly vocal about "woke" "cancel culture". In 2021, he declared, "anyone who objects to this woke aggression – is branded as instigating culture wars." And it's not just Dowden: Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg accused financial payment app Paypal of engaging in "cancel culture" as recently as September, while Suella Braverman even accused her rival Penny Mordaunt of being “woke” during the recent Tory leadership contest.

The right-wing fixation on Twitter trends is so extreme that a group of Conservative MPs launched a campaign last year to "cancel cancel culture" called "Britain Uncancelled," which seemed to amount to an online apparel store and a limp pledge to "protect free speech".

And the reason the online outrage machine is so effective is because the highest levels of the UK government are, thanks to Twitter, more aware of the issues and concerns of the country's marginalized than any other time in the country's history. That "vital education" that Jones spoke about, is also ammunition for Britain's right-wing establishment. Tabloids can identify progressive talking points, attack them via their columnists, and create talking points of their own for MPs. In a Britain without Twitter, it's hard to imagine this all still working as it does. 

Twitter is one of the last social networks that allows an unfettered global search of its content. You can't log into an app like Facebook or Instagram and see a national discussion the same way. Without Twitter, the UK slides deeper into filter bubbles, but it also becomes a lot harder to rage against your political adversaries when you can't see what they're talking about.

In other words, in a Britain without Twitter, politicians might actually have to talk to their constituents, instead of looking at hashtags.

Ryan Broderick is a tech journalist who writes the Garbage Day newsletter. 

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