August 3, 2018

Progress Report on Reducing the Political Outrage on Twitter

Enemy of truth and liberty - protester in Whitehall during the anti-Trump ban march in London.
Photo by Alisdare Hickson [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Back in March, I wrote a post about how to reduce the political outrage in your Twitter timeline. It is time to report back on what it was like to try the 4-step strategy I outlined in that post and what I learned from doing so. Overall, the experience was a good one. By clearing much of the political outrage out of my timeline, Twitter quickly became much more useful. That is probably why I am still using this approach, albeit with a few tweaks I'll mention below.

How Did the 4-Step Strategy Work?

The first step in my strategy involved muting outrage-related keywords and hashtags. This was very effective; however, it quickly became clear that more would need to be added. The sources of outrage change quickly, and keeping up with them can be a chore. Fortunately, I found that by focusing only on those I found most annoying was rather easy and made enough of a difference that I didn't need to worry about muting every one of them.

My second step involved unfollowing the worst outrage peddlers (i.e., those who seem to use Twitter primarily for sharing political outrage, name-calling, etc.). My previous post seriously underestimated how many of these people there are and how many of them I was following. I wasn't prepared for how many of these people I'd need to unfollow. I'm sure it did not help that I continued to follow new people during this time, some of whom turned out to be these people.

My third step involved disabling the retweets of several users. Although I was correct in my previous post to note that this was helpful because much of the political outrage comes in the form of people retweeting garbage from outrage merchants like the Krassensteins, I again underestimated how much of this I would need to do. It was rarely clear whether I'd be better of unfollowing someone or disabling their retweets, so I decided to err on the side of disabling retweets. I had to do far more of this than I expected.

My fourth step (i.e., monitor and repeat) correctly anticipated the need to keep up with rapidly changing sources of outrage by muting additional keywords and hashtags and unfollowing some of those I started following because they weren't doing anything more than pushing outrage. As noted, this proved to be more important and time-consuming than I had anticipated.

What Additional Tweaks Were Necessary?

I made several small tweaks that probably aren't worth mentioning, but there was one big one that made a real difference that I hadn't even thought about when I wrote the previous post. As it became increasingly clear that most of the outrage problem is due to people indiscriminately retweeting garbage from well-known outrage merchants, I couldn't help notice that many of the same accounts were being retweeted over and over. This led me to try something I hadn't initially thought of doing: muting the outrage accounts that were being heavily retweeted. For example, by muting Scott Dworkin's account, it doesn't matter how many people retweet him.

The downside of this approach quickly became evident: there's a hell of a lot of these people. I muted several of them, but new ones kept cropping up. Interestingly, I found that almost all of them have the blue check mark that indicates Twitter verification. That makes me think that Twitter aims to be an outrage platform above all else. I'd have to say they are succeeding.

Why Not Just Be More Selective About Who You Follow?

Yep. I've been asking myself that question lately, and the best I've come up with so far is that what I am looking for on Twitter has changed. Initially, I followed lots of people who were tweeting about atheism because I figured we'd have some overlapping interests. It took me far too long to realize that this was a mistake. Atheists can be every bit as irrational and tribalistic as religious believers, and there's nothing quite like social media to make that evident.

In the last month or so, I've realized that I'm most interested in following reasonable people. They are hard to find but almost always worth the effort. Now I'm looking for reasonable people, including those with whom I am likely to disagree on politics and other subjects. At the same time, I am slowly unfollowing many of those who are consistently unreasonable.