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Engagement culture: A movement to restore the social contract

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Once a relaxing environment, social media has now become a cesspool of vitriol (Image by Dan Jensen)

It’s time to look critically at what pervasive spite and self-important malice are doing to us all, argues Dr Alex Vickery-Howe, who is finally putting his phone down.

THE BATTLES were epic.

No, really.

Hours spent verbally slamming utter strangers in the mosh pit of cyberspace. Patting oneself on the back – metaphorically and, on occasion, actually – when a one-liner managed to draw caps and exclamation points of rage.


Most of my virtual opponents were, unsurprisingly, vocal Trump supporters. Not my crowd. Others were climate change deniers, who are astonishingly pompous for people who don’t read. And a few were outright racists, sexists, homophobes or conspiracy nuts (#pizzagate, #falseflag, #chemtrails, #birther, #stopthesteal, #JewishSpaceLasers, #BowlingGreen, #Swedenisdangerous). It’s the wild west out there. With dumbass cowboys.

One of my pet hates is still the historically ignorant phenomenon of American Republicans who think Hitler and the Nazis, in general, were “socialist” or “Left-wing”, which has to be up there with the most idiotic claims to come out of the U.S. in recent decades, although there’s a lot of competition. Windmills causing cancer and COVID going away in the summer of 2020 are up there. I have COVID right now, Donald, you bloated, flaccid, porcine, asinine, malicious, seditious, back-stabbing, flag-hugging, pussy-clutching, country-splitting sex pest.  

Sorry, deep breath...

There are Republicans out there – some even in positions of power – who earnestly believe the Nazis were socialists. I’ve pointed out to them, many times, that this childishly literal interpretation of “National Socialist Workers Party” (German: Nationalsozialistische) ‘is about as sophisticated as claiming Burger King is an actual monarch or Captain Morgan a serious threat to nautical tourism’.

Twitter really went the full cuckoo – I had to pinch myself – when an actual Nazi weighed into this argument and told a Klandemic of Trumpkins that ‘Alex is obviously correct. We HATE socialists!!!’

Well. Lovely. Straight from the monster’s mouth.

Being defended by a Nazi is... weird.

Still, a card-carrying fascist – I don’t know if they all carry cards, but it’d make these conversations easier – is psychologically consistent, unlike a fascist who plays victim the way the contemporary far-Right likes to do. Or the way a public bigot like Trump himself fails to see his ludicrous contradictions, draping his jelly rolls in stars and stripes while spewing his “Agenda 47” bullshit. His plan for 2024 sounds and smells an awful lot like the Final Solution, don’t you think? No? Just me?

I’m sure it’ll be fine. All good. It’s not like he has done anything insanely xenophobic before.

What does it say about the platform itself though? Elon Musk calls Twitter the “town square”, but is it? Has it ever been? You don’t find proud anti-Semites in the town square (unless it’s a very creepy town) and you don’t find raving fraudsters who claim the Second World War was “the Left versus the Left”. Most humans are smarter, calmer and more socially adjusted than Ben Shapiro and Dinesh D’Souza. Most pets are, too.

At the end of a long working day, Twitter was my balm. Unlike other social media platforms, it wasn’t about seeing the projected lives of one’s friends, casual acquaintances, or randoms from years ago. Twitter was a place where you could reach out to the wider world and find common values, and the solace of knowing you are not alone in thought, in fear and in solidarity.

So, I spent time, usually in the bubble bath, doom scrolling and fighting phantoms on a screen. It would’ve been healthier to play Tetris or see what Kylie was getting up to.

Ultimately, of course, there’s no sense arguing with people credulous enough to swallow conspiracy shit. I don’t even think D’Souza believes his own ravings, though Trump may because Trump is a transcendentally stupid man.

Finally, I switched off.

I did it.

I deleted my account.

While I continue to acknowledge that Twitter (never X) is a place where people can connect with communities that exist outside of their immediate circles – and there is some comfort in that – I refute Musk’s assertion that it is anything close to a normal town square. It is – or, at least, it has become – a place to vent, a place to scream, a place where the angriest, ugliest ideas are encouraged to thrive.

More than anything, Twitter is now a platform where lies are bred and nurtured. Thanks, Elon.

Much has been made of the superficial “freedom” of social media versus the cronyism of mainstream news. Actually, both are flawed. One is controlled by biased corporate interests – that reminds me, happy retirement, Rupert – and the other is controlled by conspiracy dickheads and biased corporate interests. In fact, studies suggest that social media is having a toxic impact on legitimate journalism. When “likes” drive the agenda instead of facts, we have a crisis.

We can only sort through this by fostering a culture of critical thinking.

In the ‘90s, we saw the potential of global interconnectivity. Oh, those heady days of happy pants and baby tees. We believed – naïvely, as it turned out – that those ridiculously long dialup cables would allow us to meet exciting new people with different angles on the world. We thought the internet would bring us together.

It did. In some ways. We shared kinks, if nothing else.

What we hoped would be an exchange of ideas – leading, perhaps, to new levels of understanding – steadily degenerated into anonymous rage, cloistered subcultures, mud-slinging, name-calling and the militant exclusion of those who dare to think differently from their peers. Or those who venture a considered opinion that cannot be easily categorised as one of “them” or one of “us”. We closed ranks. We shamed. We shunned.

There’s a certain feeling many of us – all of us, I suspect – experience when we’re at our most righteous, our most incensed. Our cheeks heat up. Our hearts thud. Every nerve tingles with our sense of being totally, unassailably, unquestionably on the right side of history, dammit. And we will lash out at those we see as “cruel”, “wrong” or “misguided”. We will demonise our foes, talk down to them and reduce even the most complex arguments to “you’re going straight to hell” or “choke on my...

A work colleague once described this puffed-up, bumptious, frilled-neck feeling to me as a legitimate mood from which to drop a hand grenade into a professional forum. It isn’t. JK Rowling recently described the same feeling on a podcast.

It gives me pause because I recognise these hot-headed tendencies in myself, particularly if I feel someone is being bullied or mistreated, be it refugees, environmentalists, members of marginalised communities, members of forgotten communities, the young, the elderly, someone who once waved at me on a bus... I can get very hoity-toity, very quickly. It’s easy when you haven’t really gotten to know the person you’re judging. Easier still when you’re behind a screen.


It’s time to look critically at what pervasive spite and self-important malice are doing to us all. Time to restore the social contract.

Lunatics who pretend Hitler was a Leftist. Political pawns inventing massacres that never happened. Rumours of child molesters in pizza shops. This is the far-Right legacy of the little blue bird.

Misogyny masquerading as liberalism. Self-advancement cosplaying as empathy. The shutting out and shutting down of debate. This is the far-Left legacy of the little blue bird.

That bird needs to shut the f**k up.

What I’ve learned from putting the phone down is that we tend to be kinder in person and kindness is always stronger and more enduring than partisan hatred. Conversations are more constructive than slogans. Nuance is more instructive than rants in 280 characters, or less.

Studies suggest we like to find enemies to make sense of our world, and social media obviously makes this less intimate and therefore easier. But very few of the issues we face in this second decade of the new millennium can be neatly split into “completely right/completely wrong” or “absolute good/absolute evil”. Instead of cancelling or censoring each other, essentially bullying our rivals into submission for our own endorphin rush... might we experiment with talking again?

What’s the opposite of cancel culture? Engagement culture? Let’s try that. It couldn’t be worse than where the little blue bird has carried us.

Deep down, even I suspect that if I were actually sitting opposite some of these Right-wing people I’ve gleefully condemned online, I’d find some common ground.

Most of them like dogs. That’s a strong start.

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning playwright and social commentator. He teaches creative writing, screen and drama at Flinders University.

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