How liberals lost the internet

Kristian Niemietz

November 30, 2022

I caught my first glimpse of Twitter in the summer of 2003.

Twitter, of course, did not exist yet, and would not for another three years. I would, in fact, not start using it myself for another eleven years or so. But I’m not talking about the company or the platform. I’m talking about the social dynamics which makes Twitter what it is.

I attended a large panel discussion event organised by my university, where the main speaker was the then Finance Senator of Berlin. Berlin, at the time, was governed by a “Red-Red” coalition, i.e. a coalition of social democrats and socialists, which should, in principle, have been to the students’ liking. But the fashionable opinion of the day was that the Red-Red senate were a bunch of neoliberal sell-outs, who were left-wing in name only.

The event went accordingly. The Finance Senator could barely get a word in because every time he tried to, he was shouted down, booed and heckled. As the event went on, more and more people joined in, until nearly the entire audience had turned into a mindless, braying, shrieking left-wing mob.

The worst part, however, was the Q&A session because it was pure performative posturing. None of the “questions” were really questions. Everyone who got hold of the microphone simply used it to vie for applause by expressing crowd-pleasing left-wing platitudes. The applause-begging soon turned into a competitive bidding war, with every person who made a point trying to out-Left the previous one.

The reason why I still remember that event, after all these years, is that I have since become an active Twitter user, and the social dynamics of that event is very much the social dynamics of Twitter. Twitter is a digital version of that lecture theatre, which you can carry around with you in your pocket, and access from anywhere.

So maybe in hindsight, it should have been obvious that social media would turn out to be what it is today. But bizarre as this may now seem, in the early days, it was a commonly held view that (what we now call) “social media” would lead to greater political pluralism by boosting non-mainstream causes. Libertarians and radical liberals were particularly optimistic that they would be among the beneficiaries. I believed that too at the time, and I’ll explain why I got this so wrong.

The basic idea at the time was a simple one. Imagine you held an unpopular, unfashionable minority opinion in the pre-internet age. It would have been quite difficult for you to connect with like-minded people (at least in the absence of an established organisational infrastructure). It would be unlikely that many of those people live near you, and even if they did, it would be hard to identify them. People with fashionable opinions tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, because they expect positive social feedback for expressing them. But people with unfashionable opinions tend to be more guarded and keep their views to themselves.

The internet was a game changer for people with niche interests and beliefs because it made it so much easier for them to connect with likeminded people. Moreover, it made it much easier to find out about those niche interests and beliefs in the first place. Twitter and Facebook did not exist yet when I was an undergraduate student, but there was great diversity of online discussion forums: I remember a libertarian one, and a liberal one dominated by liberals of the radical variety. Obviously, there were many more left-wing discussion forums, and those were several orders of magnitude bigger in terms of user numbers. But in relative terms, the internet made a much bigger difference to radical liberals and libertarians than it made to the Left.

The Left did not need the internet, because they were already hegemonic. They were already able to reach everyone they wanted to reach. They were already able to spread every idea they wanted to spread. For them, the internet was a nice-to-have extra, but it did not enable them to do anything they could not have done anyway. Especially if you were a left-leaning student, it was extremely easy to learn more about left-wing ideas, and to reach likeminded people. Among the student societies, there were dozens of flavours of Marxism. But if you deviated from that stifling left-wing orthodoxy, there was nowhere for you to go.

I learned about libertarian ideas via the internet, and I would never have come across them without it. In real life, I did not know a single person who was even vaguely in that ideological ballpark. I had met the odd milquetoast, “business-friendly” liberal, but as far as the offline world was concerned, for me, that was where the political spectrum ended.

So, for a short time, it felt as though “our side” was growing rapidly (from an extremely low base), while the left was stagnant (because they had already exhausted their growth potential). If you extrapolated from that trend just a little bit, you could imagine a world in the near future where the left would still be dominant, but no longer hegemonic. You could imagine a world where the left-wing mainstream had to face several smaller competitors, one of them being a revived, rejuvenated, radical liberalism.

The exact opposite has happened. The Left is now more hegemonic than ever, and nowhere more so than on social media. How did this happen?

The effect we identified back then really did exist. It is true that the chance of stumbling across non-mainstream ideologies is now many times greater than it used to be before the internet. We were right about that. But there is also a countervailing effect which we failed to anticipate, namely, how the internet would heighten group pressure and conformism.

At least two important things have changed since the early days of social media.

Firstly, we are no longer scattered across dozens of different discussion forums. We are now all concentrated in the same place: Twitter.

People whose opinions are unfashionable on Twitter like to tell themselves that Twitter is just an irrelevant little left-wing online bubble. That ceased to be true long ago. In 2010, there were a little over 50 million Twitter users worldwide. By 2021, that figure had risen to nearly 400 million. Britain is a particularly “Twitterised” country, with over 17.5 million users – more than France and Germany taken together. Subtract those who are too young to be on Twitter, and those who are too old to bother, and this amounts to a clear majority of the young and middle-aged population. Secondly, Twitter is not just a million discussion forums rolled into one. It is a place governed by a completely different incentive structure. The old online forums had no equivalent of either the “retweet” function or the “like” function (although it started, slowly, with “upvote” and “downvote” buttons). Sure, if you said something popular, you might get positive replies, and if you said something unpopular, you might get negative replies. But most of the time, you would have no way of knowing how popular or unpopular you were on the forum, and therefore much less of an incentive to pander to an audience.

Twitter, in contrast, has a clear system of punishments and rewards. Express a fashionable opinion, and you will get lots of likes and retweets. Express an unfashionable one, and you get “piled on” and/or “ratio’d”.

Of course, if you arrive on Twitter with an already fully formed worldview that you are very sure of, this feedback mechanism is not going to sway you. If you are a bit of a contrarian troll who enjoys being hated, it might even push you in the opposite direction. (This is why Twitter has also produced a few right-wing provocateurs, alongside an army of woke socialists.) But if you are still a little bit on the fence, and if you care about popularity and status, Twitter’s system of punishments and rewards will, over time, push you towards adopting fashionable opinions.

Note, I am not suggesting that people who adopt fashionable opinions are being dishonest. I am not saying that they just adopt those opinions for the social clout, and secretly believe something completely different. What I am saying is that political opinions are, to a large extent, ‘autosuggestive’. Within a certain range, we can convince ourselves that the opinions we benefit from holding are our actual opinions. You cannot convince yourself that the moon is made out of cheese, even if that were, for some reason, the trendy opinion du jour. But you can convince yourself that J.K. Rowling is a hateful bigot, that capitalism causes climate change and racism, and that Jeremy Corbyn is The Absolute Boy.

So yes, your chances of discovering interesting ideas outside of the left-wing mainstream are much higher than they would have been in, say, 1992. But the conformist pressure to quickly reject those ideas, and go along with the left-wing mainstream, is also much greater. That second effect more than cancels out the former.

This, in a nutshell, is how liberals lost the internet, and how the Left won it.


Written by Kristian Niemietz

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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