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When nuclear war breaks out, blame Twitter

US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Once a place of banter, Twitter has become a humourless repository for rancour and bile – and nuclear threats.

When nuclear war breaks out, blame Twitter. The social media platform has become distinctly antisocial. It is not just Donald Trump’s ranting, although he provides the rancid flavour of the site. Recently, he tweeted in fewer than 280 characters a warning to the President of Iran never to threaten the security of the United States or Hassan Rouhani would “SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE”. His capitals seem to imply an atomic bellow from the White House.

It might not be effective, as Twitter is banned in Iran. A cynic may suggest his Twitter-rattling to Iran was merely an attempted diversion from the Mueller inquiry and the Putin fiasco, and certainly New Zealand is not worried about an outbreak of thermo-nuclear war. Acting Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters has declared he does not believe the President actually writes his own tweets and says he will fire anyone in the public service who follows Trump on Twitter. Peters, by the way, does not write his own tweets. I believe he still uses parchment and a quill.

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Great-power diplomacy aside, much of Twitter has become a cesspit. New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman recently quit the social media app, writing, “The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight. It is a place where people who are understandably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger, where the underbelly of free speech is at its most bilious.”

The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, said in an interview she no longer reads comments about herself online and is thinking of giving up social media altogether. This from someone who pioneered the broadcaster’s foray online to push its news coverage.

Some of the problem stems from the fact that extreme-right and hard-left sites and tweeters whip up a frenzy against people they disagree with and a Twitter “pile on” ensues, leaving the person at the bottom of the heap bloodied and bruised.

I mainly follow journalists and public figures but also a handful of the rank and file from each side of the political divide, in a bid to keep tabs on the public mood. I tend to stalk the feed and seldom tweet myself. Why make yourself a target?

In the New Zealand Twitter world, the advent of the Labour-led government created a festering ferment among those on the right that I follow, with a corresponding rise in the smugness levels of those on the left. Humour is declining, which is sad, because Twitter was once a place of banter.

I suspect the Twitter population is a rapidly ageing one, as millennials and younger people have wisely wandered off to other, gentler social media that we don’t know about because we are too ancient.

Older people are more dyspeptic and, to quote The Simpsons, like to yell at clouds, which is why Twitter is as it is. Twitter is like talkback radio but without a host who can hit the kill button and take the maddest callers off air before they cause too much offence.

I have little idea what Facebook is like these days as I accidentally cut off my feed, but I have no desire to return to it as I suspect it, too, is tinged with Twitter-like rancour.

Perhaps I should simply go onto Instagram, the more benign photo and video-sharing site, which at least will give us a beautiful colour shot of the mushroom cloud when it explodes.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.