Twitter and Thought Reform

I’ve written about thought reform before, focusing on the ‘woke left’ and ‘transgenderist’ subcultures:

Now I want to talk about how Twitter itself promotes the formation of subcultures, each of which has many characteristics of a thought reform environment.

 On Twitter, several feedback mechanisms are available for tweets. For example, likes and retweets tends to signal approval. When one receives many likes, retweets, and positive replies, one knows one has said ‘the right thing’. The tweets that tend to get most approval are short, pithy, easy to understand, and resonate strongly with the emotions or opinions of the group. Tweets that contradict those opinions, or which go against the dominant emotions, tend to be met with forceful, angry replies, few likes and retweets, and / or blocking. These negative responses then receive the approval of the group. The most emotionally charged tweets tend to receive the most attention, whether negative, positive, or mixed. If there is little response, one feels irrelevant. 

When a tweet ‘goes viral’, the volume of responses can be overwhelming. When strong disapproval is encountered, one may feel attacked (‘swarmed’ or dogpiled’), which can make one wary of expressing similar views again. If there is strong approval, one feels validated (or ‘lovebombed’) — this motivates one to re-express those views. In both cases, onlookers are similarly affected.

Now, consider Margaret Singer’s 6 Conditions for a Thought Reform Environment, and how they relate to the dynamics of Twitter subcultures. NB: these conditions are a sort of ‘weaponisation’ of normal social processes.

What Is A Cult and How Does It Work?

1) Deception – Keep the subject unaware of the hidden agenda: 

The (potential) anonymity afforded by Twitter makes it relatively easy for groups or individuals with a hidden agenda to operate, and to exert coercive influence on others.

2) Destabilisation – Control the subject’s physical environment and ‘thinking time’:

Twitter is addictive — in order to maximise profits, it is designed that way. So, although heavy use of Twitter may not promote control of one’s physical environment, it can certainly take control of one’s ‘thinking time’.

3) Dependency and Dread – Create a sense of powerlessness, anxiety and fear:

Twitter mechanisms promote the easy formation of like-minded groups. One can become dependent on membership of these groups for social validation, especially if one feels isolated from ‘normal society’.

4) Disconnection – Suppress the old behaviour and attitudes:

In these groups, there tend to be certain dos and don’ts — some behaviours are punished, while others are rewarded. Therefore, one avoids expressing the ‘wrong’ thoughts for fear of reprisals. In time, one may come to suppress even the thinking of such thoughts.

5) Developing the Cult Pseudopersonality – Elicit new behaviour and attitudes:

In order to get in with the group, one tends to express the approved views. This creates an online image that may be at odds with one’s ‘true’ (or perhaps, former) personality.

6) Denial and Dedication – Maintain a closed system of logic and restrict criticism:

Twitter mechanisms and social pressures promote the blocking and marginalisation of those who express opinions at odds with those of the group. This can lead to significant changes in one’s own core beliefs and behaviour.

Now, consider Steven Hassan’s BITE model, which is essentially another way of describing the same conditions of thought reform.

Here, the group controls one’s Behaviour, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions. It’s easier to consider these in a different order:

1) Control of Information:

The more time one spends on Twitter, the less time one has to seek out alternative sources of information. If one is a member of a relatively closed group, the information one does see tends to reinforce the dominant narratives of the group. Conflicting information tends to be suppressed.

2) Control of Emotions:

When one reinforces the group’s dominant narrative, one receives approval. When one contradicts it, one receives disapproval. Since Twitter mechanisms reward the most emotionally charged tweets, responses can have a strong effect on the emotions.

3) Control of Thoughts:

The influences on one’s emotions, combined with the limited access to information, lead to changes in one’s thinking that make it more compatible with that of the group.

4) Control of Behaviour:

One stops expressing unpopular opinions in favour of those that meet with the group’s approval.

These processes operate in all Twitter subcultures, and are clearly visible: We can think of the Corbynistas, Trumpists, transgenderists (or TRAs), the gender critical movement (or GCs), the alt-right, and many more. In all of these subcultures, the conditions for thought reform exist (to a greater or lesser extent) purely by virtue of the medium itself. 

These various Twitter subcultures are not cults per se, but they operate in much the same way. Many people within these subcultures have noticed this cult-like pattern within other groups, but rarely notice it within their own. They are quick to label others as ‘cultists’, but there is little understanding of what a cult is, and how it works. Instead, the word is used as a slur — it serves only to reinforce one’s own group identity. Thus, this behaviour itself operates as a mechanism of thought reform.

Recently, a number of individuals have broken away from the gender critical movement, to form their own group, which spends its time railing against the cult-like tendencies of both GCs and TRAs. They assure themselves that they alone are seeing things clearly — they think for themselves, and express their opinions without regard to what others may think of them. But this is nonsense. All they have done is swap one social group for another, in which the same social factors are operative, by virtue of the medium itself as well as their own habits of mind.

There is no escape. The fact is that nobody is immune to these influences, no matter how intelligent, well-educated, erudite, or stupid one may be. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and we are all susceptible to the toxic influences of our peers. 

So, how can human beings, communicating via social media, guard against thought reform and the creation of cult-like subcultures? It’s not easy. But I recommend we all learn about thought-reform, and actively work to counter it within our own communities.

Do not allow yourself to be controlled by your emotions. Stop punishing those who go against the grain, and instead reward them with likes and retweets. When you receive likes and retweets, refrain from repeating yourself — think of something new to say, and say that instead. If people attack you, do not retaliate; simply ignore them, or respond with polite neutrality.

When someone makes a comment you’ve heard a thousand times before, recognise its worthlessness, and ignore it. Limit your time on social media. Seek out alternative sources of information, and opinions that differ from your own. Try, at all times, to prove yourself wrong. Do not measure your own value by the perceptions of like-minded individuals, or confuse social status with virtue. 

Don’t let anybody else tell you what to think. And most importantly, stay calm.