It could all have been so different. In some parallel dimension, social media is being used to shape our political discourse for the better: as an arena where views and beliefs are expressed generously and listened to eagerly, where we allow our prejudices to be challenged, where we welcome opposing opinions, where we learn from those who see the world differently from us.
Alas, we are in this dimension, and we are human beings, so what could have had a beneficial effect on public life instead threatens its viability. And at a time when compromise is needed more than ever – not least to help ease a political impasse that endangers the social fabric of Britain – social media gives every appearance of having been devised solely to guarantee tribalism and intransigence. It is time for us first to acknowledge and then to resist its calculated manipulation of our psychological weaknesses, and assert afresh one of our greatest freedoms: the freedom to change our minds.
Much has been written about the echo-chamber effect, our propensity to surround ourselves with views with which we already agree, and distance ourselves from those holding opposing opinions. It encourages us to see the world as divided between us and them, to exaggerate the differences between self and other. But there is much more going on, and it has a direct relevance to Britain’s current bind.
One of Twitter’s great selling points is that it allows us to record countless thoughts the moment they pass through our minds. But perhaps this public record of our beliefs makes it harder for us to change them. If, for example, a certain individual has spent years tweeting about the dangers of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, any softening of that opinion would surely be met with countless reminders of previous tweets on the subject. It is far easier to be consistent than risk looking hypocritical. In this way, Twitter encourages us to become beholden to notions that in truth now belong in the past, beholden to previous versions of ourselves.
There is something deeper here, too. Those previous opinions may well have proven popular – perhaps especially if they were expressed in strident terms. Likes and retweets and followers rack up; it’s addictive. Certain individuals thus build themselves up into brands: they become loved or loathed (each is of equal value on Twitter) based on the very predictability of what they are going to say.
This can be lucrative. In the current example, if your brand has been built on your visceral dislike of Corbyn, then any sign of equivocation risks not only a charge of hypocrisy, but essentially a threat to your personal business model. For the rest of us, it jeopardises self-esteem. And this is before we get on to the slew of icons and flags that so often accompany Twitter handles: what begins as an attempt to describe us can end up defining us.
Most people are not on Twitter. Huge swathes of the population are blessedly detached from it. But politicians and journalists – who, despite everything, still wield great power – almost uniformly are, and so what happens there has a wildly disproportionate effect. It is tempting to place on Twitter much of the culpability for our polarised politics, and it would certainly be naive to view it as somehow neutral, like a parish noticeboard.
Yet to blame the tech can be to abrogate our responsibility. We can lose sight of the fact that at the heart of all this are humans: weak, fragile, needy beings. If we can see what social media is doing to us and how it is doing it, we can start to do things differently.
Changing one’s mind, or allowing new circumstances to introduce greater nuance into strongly held beliefs, is essential to avoid the polarisation that poisons so much of our politics. There is nothing hypocritical about changing your mind; there is, however, in claiming to be evidence-led, but remaining defiantly dogmatic in the face of a changing world. We need more of our public figures and leading opinion-formers to take risks, eschew cheap popularity and brave the inevitable charges of inconsistency. Maybe the rest of us can help by giving them the room to do so without losing face. At times, it seems like Twitter holds us in a strange captivity. But to admit that we have got things wrong, and to let others do the same, is a way of breaking free. The need to do so has rarely been greater.
• Peter Ormerod is a journalist with a particular interest in religion, culture and gender