Status anxiety

The tyranny of the Twitterati

8 December 2012

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identified ‘the tyranny of the majority’ as the main shortcoming of democratic societies. His fear was that the principle of majority rule could cross over from the political arena to the realm of ideas. After all, if being able to command the most votes is the main source of political authority, what’s to stop it becoming the main source of intellectual authority? Tocqueville wasn’t worried about people being oppressed physically in democratic societies. Rather, it was their independence of mind that was at risk — and this ‘mild despotism’ was, in some ways, even more pernicious than the overt despotism of European monarchies.

Was Tocqueville being unduly alarmist? Today, diversity of opinions and ideas is one of the great distinguishing characteristics of democratic societies. Even where one viewpoint clearly predominates — such as a belief in socialised medicine — there’s usually an active minority that isn’t afraid to voice its dissent.

But if Tocqueville was wrong about the tendency of individuals to be tyrannised by the majority across whole societies, he was right about it happening within the various groups that make up democratic societies. People will disagree about whether those on the left are more susceptible to herd opinion than those on the right, but what is beyond dispute is that left-wing activists are more effective at enforcing a party line.


The manner in which the left has hijacked Twitter is a case in point. Take the recent fate suffered by Carla Bruni, the former first lady of France. Last week, she gave an interview to French Vogue in which she expressed mild scepticism about the continuing relevance of feminism in the 21st century. ‘We don’t need to be feminists in my generation,’ she said. ‘There are pioneers who paved the way. I am not at all a feminist activist.’

Reasonable enough, you might think, given that women have comprehensively won the battle of the sexes. But among hard-core feminists, such a view was tantamount to heresy and they soon began mobilising on Twitter to punish Bruni for her sedition. A women’s rights group called Osez le Féminisme! (Dare to Be Feminist!) urged its followers to ‘explain’ to the former supermodel why she was, ahem, mistaken. Within days, Bruni had been assailed with thousands of tweets, all admonishing her for dissenting from left-wing groupthink. By Monday of this week, Bruni had issued a grovelling apology, announcing that she is a feminist after all.

Another example is the Hacked Off campaign to get people to sign the online petition demanding that Leveson be implemented in full. In the past week, my Twitter timeline has been deluged with calls to arms from the likes of Emma Watson and Richard Dawkins urging me to sign the petition. (‘I’ve signed it with enthusiasm,’ tweeted Dawkins — reason enough, presumably, to follow suit.) Now these haven’t had any impact on me. But for those who think of themselves as liberal and progressive, they’re obviously making quite an impression. At the time of writing, over 140,000 people had signed the petition.

One of the characteristics of the Hacked Off campaign has been its self-righteous tone, depicting anyone who opposes statutory regulation as morally suspect. ‘MPs must back Dowler not Dacre,’ tweeted Hugh Grant, as if not signing the petition was tantamount to spitting in the face of Milly Dowler’s parents. This is the so-called ‘victim test’ that any response to Leveson must pass. What’s so ironic about this is that the people supporting the Hacked Off campaign would be the first to condemn a right-wing tabloid that attempted to railroad through an illiberal law by applying a similar ‘test’. Castration for rapists, anyone?

Sometimes the left-wing Twitterati do more than simply issue blanket moral condemnations of anyone who fails to toe the line. They actively go after dissenters by urging their followers to join them in a public shaming exercise. I experienced a mild version of this recently when Graham Linehan, a comedy writer with impeccable liberal credentials, urged his 245,000 followers to pile into a debate I was having with him. Within minutes I’d been called every name under the sun.

To describe this as ‘mild despotism’ doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s more like the intellectual equivalent of a Salem witch trial. As I say, it has little affect on me. But for people more susceptible to the storm troopers of left-wing orthodoxy — like poor Carla Bruni — it’s exactly the form of ‘tyranny’ that Tocqueville warned against.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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  • Brian Sharland

    The issue here is not the ‘tyranny of the twitterati’ but the lack of understanding of how far feminism has to go to still make a difference and an overzealous reaction to the Leveson inquiry. You fail to understand that in both of these cases Twitter didn’t cause these issues, merely exacerbated the response. If those who were responding to Bruni had used cardboard tubes to shout at her instead of twitter then this blog post would have been entitled ‘The Tyranny of Cardboard tubes!”

    Besides when looking at the tweet streams of individuals such as yourself, Delingpole et al I would say that right-wing idealogues are doing quite fine on twitter.

  • jack

    I didn’t realize anyone took “feminism” seriously still. Whenever I’m depressed, I only have to think of feminists and their outpourings and before long I’m rolling around the floor convulsing with laughter.

    • Sarah

      And share with us, what do your thought consist of? What feminist philosophy have you read recently, pray tell.

      There’s nothing funnier than morons.

  • Nick Fryer

    Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator – but neither he nor his colleagues who read his column, if any, can spell “effect”. I’d say, “astonishing”, but then I did read the article, so I already knew the intellectual level we were dealing with here.

    Gosh, Toby, you said something in public that a bunch of people disagreed with, and they said so, in public. Ouch. “Tyranny”, indeed. Imagine what they might have done had they had access to the pulpit of The Spectator. Called you a tyrant, perhaps.

  • dimitricavalli

    I’m sure the Pope, who has joined Twitter recently, has been getting numerous abusive, bigoted, and foul-mouthed tweets. Many may wonder why he would bother to enter such a hostile forum. But to preach the Gospel, he has to go where the people are. Ten of the Apostles and St. Paul all ended up being martyred for following Christ’s dictum of going to teach all nations.

    In less than two weeks, Pope Benedict has just surpassed the number of followers that Richard Dawkins has on Twitter who has been using it for years! The Pope’s books also far outsell those published by Dick, who is lucky if he fills a lecture hall when he goes on tour.

  • William Reid Boyd

    On the whole agree with this, but I piously hope social media like Twitter is something we will eventually educate ourselves on much as we have with radio and TV.

    Carla Bruni business also a lot to do with with traditional Fench views of feminism, which as with everything French was ‘exceptional’. There’s an adjustment in progress that took off with a certain French politician negotiating a blow-job with a New York chamber maid without making good on the tab.

    But you’re on the money with the Hacked Off campaign I think.

  • AllGoodPopester

    i’m pretty confident that the paid for social media teams of the lefty parties and associated media are a million times more in number and effectivness than those of the right. if you look at the obvious demographics this will not come as a suprise. they do drum up the vitriol very ‘well’. venture onto the indy or guardian sites and the huge outpourings are…..well not of very open minded people. like daily mail readers are made out to be by the guardian readers etc….they do the whole spin very well a la alistair campbell. i do wonder what camerons media team actually do. social media isnt really that new, its just engagement with your audience / voters / public. its getting the opinion and argument out there. 9-1 to the lunatic left….(at half time…!)

  • Matthew

    An excellent column (save for the “affect’ howler in the last paragraph). For a case in point, just type “Peter Hitchens” into Twitter’s search feature and look through the results.


    It was nice of Max Clifford to detail interesting aspects of the phone and computer scandal on to his hard drive, especially his correspondence with Michelle Harris . I am sure the Police will pass on interesting unknown aspects of the case to the relevant investigative authority.

  • Sarah

    Carla Bruni utilised the right wing free press to disseminate her comment.
    The feminists utilised the left wing social media to disseminate theirs.
    You utilised the right wing Spectator to disseminate yours.

  • Sarah

    “Reasonable enough, you might think, given that women have comprehensively won the battle of the sexes.”

    Is this out of the same witless stable as “the female is more deadly that the male” requote?

  • Sarah

    ” People will disagree about whether those on the left are more susceptible to herd opinion than those on the right, but what is beyond dispute is that left-wing activists are more effective at enforcing a party line.

    The manner in which the left has hijacked Twitter is a case in point.

    Just sounds like jealousy, you lot from the free press missed the boat.

    Twitter and social media wasn’t hijacked by the left, it was colonised by women, because they were completely excluded from the mainstream free press except as agony aunts, naked people or victims and they had nowhere else to go.
    Just look at the Spectator line up: men, men, and more men. Look at its commenters: sheep in herd formation.

  • Sarah

    Last week, she gave an interview to French Vogue in which she expressed mild scepticism about the continuing relevance of feminism in the 21st century. ‘We don’t need to be feminists in my generation,’

    Putting aside the extraorinary level of self-centredness of her comment. What for you Toby, would constitute medium or strong scepticism?

  • charliebeckett

    All this article says is that Toby doesn’t agree with what some people say on Twitter. There are plenty of right-wing things said on Twitter that I don’t agree with. So what? I actually enjoy coming across views I don’t automatically share.
    It’s much healthier than in the past where there were right or left wing ‘mobs’ who ran the press or broadcast. Now we can all form a mob of our own. I assume ‘mob’ means a group of people you don’t agree with (if you agree with them, they become a ‘community’).
    And anyway, it’s nothing to do with a ‘majority’ mob, as Twitter is still firmly a minority platform in countries like the UK and France.

    End of panic.

  • WIlliam Blakes Ghost

    Which is why David Cameron’s most astute comment of all time is probably.

    ‘How many tweets make a tw@’

    Seriously its about time the Glitterati realised that displaying their inner selves online is an utterly stupid thing to do. It just attracts the crazies (like those misandrists). After all would any of us have known (so soon) what a complete and utter idiot Silly Bercow is if she hadn’t been such a Twitter victim?

    Social networking – only for fools…..

  • xDemosthenesx

    Twitter just goes to prove that Nietzsche was correct – when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

    I have no idea why people use it if they are not thick skinned enough to ignore the inevitable herd of abusive morons.

    Toby is wrong, however, in describing this as ‘the intellectual equivalent of a Salem witch trial’ – the problem is not that lots of people vent their fury; it is that people pay attention.

    A yawn and a rolling of the eyes is much more effective than engaging with these people – after all, that is all they really want.

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