January 11, 2021

Back in the early 1980s, during the worst period of urban squalor and decay in the United States, a feeling of despair had set in about crime. Could cities ever be made liveable again? Who would want to raise a family in a place with so much everyday disorder and violence?

It was at this point that political scientist James Q. Wilson came up with the theory of Broken Windows, an idea that was to become hugely influential in turning the tide and restoring American cities to civility (much of which has been undone in 2020). Wilson argued that if the authorities crack down on minor incivility – graffiti, fare-dodging, panhandling – then very soon it will start to have an effect on major crimes too. It was to some degree basic common sense – give them an inch and they’ll take a mile – but then the 1960s had been a unique time of unlearning common sense in favour of exciting and fashionable new theories about human behaviour.

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Broken Windows works partly because, even in the most violent places, huge amounts of serious crime is committed by a very small percentage of men. In Central American countries such as El Salvador or Honduras, which are plagued by horrific homicide rates, violence is mostly concentrated not just in a few neighbourhoods but even a few streets. Removing only a very small number of men has a drastic effect on wider society.

I often think about Wilson when perusing everyone’s favourite forum of thoughtful political debate, Twitter, which in terms of civility is somewhere around the period of The Warriors or Joker, the nadir of late 70s/early 80s urban decay.

If Twitter were a city it would be the sort of city where the authorities allow people to defecate in public or shoot up outside a school, and then express surprise when middle-class families wish to leave because of “the better quality of life” found in a four-hour commute away exurb.

The situation has been deteriorating for some time, although users of the site have rather adopted a Golden Age myth of a non-existent time when Twitter wasn’t filled with hysterics and fanatics. But this weekend, and with the moral courage of Ecuador or Paraguay declaring war on Germany in February 1945, Twitter finally decided to ban Donald Trump. After years of winding people up, lying, inciting hatred and worse, the outgoing President had finally overstepped the mark on 6 January.  Three days later, and his Twitter opus was gone.

To anyone who still believes in liberal democracy, the question of what to do with Donald Trump provides no easy answers – and anyone who says it is simple is a partisan with an axe to grind.

Most people tend to be more favourable to censorship when they think they’re the ones who will do the censoring, rather than being the censored. And censorship, of course, comes in gradations; the government sending goons around to your house for a critical YouTube comment is at the hard end, but being de-platformed by tech monopolies still entails a degree of lost liberty.

Tech monopolies, after all, aren’t like ordinary websites; they have the sort of media power that just didn’t exist before the 21st century, the ability to overthrow governments, to shape the news agenda, to curate our views not just of current affairs but of history, too. In terms of cultural power they are closer in scope to the churches of old than any newspaper.

Monopolies are generally bad for freedom and despite, or perhaps because of, its great love of capitalism, the United States has historically been very strong on breaking up monopolies, far stricter than Britain. But then America was founded on the idea of breaking up the most important monopoly of all: belief.

Before the late 17th century, almost no one believed in “freedom” of conscience or speech in the modern sense: they simply wanted more freedom for themselves. The first English colonies were founded by sectarian groups who fled persecution so they could do the persecuting, and this they did – Rhode Island was founded by people escaping Massachusetts, for instance. However there grew such a diversity of religious congregations in the colonies – Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Independents, Methodists, Quakers, even Catholics and Jews – that a balance was established.

America’s founding ideals — and its subsequent success — derived from this diversity of beliefs, and the fact that no sect could dominate the others.

The problem arising in the 21st century is that politics has evolved into a new form of sectarianism, with two rival worldviews at loggerheads, and with the internet doing the job that pamphlets once did, of stirring up hatred between the two. And while a country might flourish with one sect or with many sects, a society with two is doomed to unending conflict.

Conservatives fear giving big tech further control because they believe, with good reason, that big tech is against them; it is controlled by the other sect. Even before Trump and when the Republican Party was fairly normal, employees at Facebook, Twitter, Google and elsewhere were overwhelmingly more likely to be liberal and Democrat-voting – and as with all of these patterns, the same thing applies to Britain, too.

And yet, by any Wilsonian reading of social media, Donald Trump ought to have been banned ages ago. He does to online debate what a man selling drugs outside your kid’s school does to neighbourliness; his behaviour is corrosive for the wider community.

For most Twitter users, the site is a fun, informative and entertaining place to make friends, learn things, share articles and find out about the world. For a small but significant amount of time, it’s marred by horrendous bullying and incivility; and just like with big cities, where life is often scarred by violence even in relatively wealthy areas, much of this is preventable.

As in real life, where you only need to lock away a few people to turn a city around, social media platforms can make a huge difference by removing a small number of individuals. For example, an analysis of 1.8 billion Reddit comments found that “0.1% of all communities generate 38% of attacks” and “1% accounts for 74%”.

Unfortunately, while Twitter tends to reward and promote provocateurs and narcissists, the real problem is that, like with many American cities in the 1970s, the Twitter police cannot be trusted to be fair.

The platform has a consistent policy of allowing high-follower accounts to get away with extreme incivility, incitement to violence and even racial hatred. It lets them do so for the same reason that bad behaviour is often indulged – because the people doing it are seen as having the right politics, in this case of the progressive variety.

But it’s also the deeper problem of the social media site that, despite its progressive vibe – and it is no more than a vibe – it is obsessively hierarchical. The entire system is designed to signify people’s status; not just the follower count, but the very idea of blue ticks which initiate a modern-day noblesse de la robe. Blue ticks were supposed to be used for authentication — to distinguish real users from painfully unfunny parody accounts — but they are quite clearly treated as an endorsement. That is why conservative Douglas Murray had to have two bestselling books and 200,000 followers before being raised to the nobility of the blue tick, a far higher bar than for progressive writers.

In the English-speaking world, status derives chiefly either from wealth or education, but it also increasingly comes from political virtue, the possession of correct beliefs, and having those views often exempts the privileged from the boring rules everyone else has to observe. Nothing better epitomises this system of political privilege than the Yale students found screaming obscenities at a Master because he didn’t take seriously their concerns about Halloween costumes. That is a level of overt, aristocratic privilege far more resembling ancien regime Europe than a democratic republic.

Twitter’s privileged elite often behave in absolutely appalling ways, including inciting violence or fantasising about teenaged boys getting killed, and yet nothing happens. Other blue ticks have popularised the racially derogatory use of “white” (“white feminists”, “white tears”, “mediocre white men”) which has seeped into wider media discourse. At best it’s tiresome – especially as a lot of the worst offenders are white people; at worst it’s needlessly degrading and inflammatory, and lowers the tone. Yet they are excused because they are privileged by the right politics.

The problem with Twitter is that it mixes this essentially pre-modern aristocratic mindset with a radical egalitarianism. It wants to be a democracy without the values necessary for a democracy, including restraint and civility; these are all things that America’s founding fathers well understood. They saw that “virtue” was necessary for democracy — and being an ostentatiously virtuous Christian did not excuse anyone from obeying ordinary rules of behaviour.

The most reactionary of the Founding Fathers, a man called Fisher Ames, worried that the people didn’t possess enough virtue and that eventually a demagogue would rise to power in America. The Massachusetts representative wrote in his wonderfully pessimistic-sounding The Dangers of American Liberty that “Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratick for liberty” and declared that “Few can reason, all can feel” – which could almost be Twitter’s motto.

Despite Ames’s worries, representative democracy has proved the best form of government to date, but social media pushes us much closer towards an ancient Athenian form of direct democracy, a system which lasted barely decades before bad decision-making by the mob brought it to disaster. And following a year in which China has successfully dealt with an external threat while the United States has seemingly fallen apart, I do wonder if social media and democracy are essentially incompatible, eroding all the qualities necessary for its initial creation – moderation, tolerance and, most of all, loser’s consent.

Trump is an antithesis to all these democratic virtues, and the world would have been a much better place had Twitter banned him a decade ago. But then the real problem is the medium itself, a system which mixes aristocratic arrogance with populist anarchy, a toxic combination almost perfectly designed to erode democracy.