As a clinical psychologist, I see the "Twitter Files" as the capstone of a riveting social psychology experiment. Psychological studies suggest that humans have an innate sense of fairness and that it evolved to motivate social cooperation and healthy competition.
Cooperation tends to work best when we can communicate clearly. When we’re unable or unwilling to do so, we are more prone to passive-aggressive behaviors and what psychologists call "acting out."
Our problem-solving skills are also compromised. Twitter’s secretive, government-coordinated censorship of both opinion and factual truths compromised our sense of fairness and even our grasp on reality -- to the detriment of society.
To understand why consider these three psychological concepts:
1. Reality Testing and Gaslighting
One of the primary things a clinical psychologist assesses is a patient’s connection to reality. Without it, a patient is vulnerable to profound distortions in their thought processes.
By gaslighting the public about whether it was "shadowbanning" certain accounts (such as the Twitter account belonging to Stanford professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and many others) Twitter fiddled with our sense of reality and our sense of fairness.
The government’s reportedly secret portal to submit "problematic" tweets and officials' frequent meetings with Twitter to target certain accounts simultaneously jeopardized our sense of fairness and our perception of reality since the extent of the collusion was largely hidden from the public.
We were simply left to observe that American journalists, politicians, and doctors were suspended for "hate speech" or "misinformation" for asserting facts or opinions (many of which have been proven true, such as the existence of COVID vaccine side effects or that the Jussie Smollet "hate crime" was a hoax) while Iran’s ayatollahs were free to encourage obliterating Israel.
Twitter’s selective suppression of content was a double-gaslight on the public’s sense of reality because it not only warped our sense of social consensus; it vociferously denied "shadowbanning" despite using a now-exposed system called "visibility filtering" that looks almost exactly like shadowbanning.
2. Repression, Suppression and Passive Aggression
When we are unable or unwilling to address disagreements through direct communication, we suppress or repress our feelings and may resort to passive aggression, "acting out," and black-and-white thinking.
For example, agreeing to a deadline we secretly think is unreasonable and then "forgetting" about it or stonewalling the boss.
Verbally labeling our thoughts and feelings has been shown to reduce amygdala activity – when we forego speech, we are more prone to an amygdala-driven "fight or flight" response, which heightens conflict.
Consider how this applies to Twitter, when political dialogue was secretly skewed to favor one party: Public debate and conversation were overtly and covertly suppressed, leaving many unwilling to engage for fear of "cancellation" by our wider culture.
Given the pattern of secret censorship and favoritism exposed by the "Twitter Files," it’s actually not surprising that political discord is at record levels. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the discord is known to be particularly brutal on Twitter – the level of unfairness likely disincentivized the need for cooperation, while simultaneously fostering ideal conditions for repression, passive aggression and amygdala activity to rise. It was practically a recipe for social discord.
Psychologist Irving Janis coined the term "groupthink" when reviewing the social dynamics that led to the Bay of Pigs disaster. He found that groupthink is facilitated by factors that include self-censorship, the illusion of group consensus via censorship, the presence of stress, and a sense of moral superiority.
In other words, Twitter during COVID was a near-ideal environment for groupthink to arise. Frequent self-censorship as a requirement for survival on the site created a warped sense of social consensus around many medical and social issues.
The Twitter Trust and Safety Council was presumably well-intentioned and acting out of a perceived place of moral superiority – and their constant penalties on accounts with dissenting viewpoints likely bolstered the moral superiority felt by users whose opinions the council favored.
The stress of COVID combined with various interpretations of "social justice" and the moral superiority it connotes created a fervent sense of righteous indignation that seems to have polarized society to the level where even some family members are "de-friending" each other over minor political differences.
Much of our sociopolitical discord may be attributable to the groupthink of Twitter that was readily facilitated by censorship, moral superiority, and a false sense of social consensus.
Open dialogue generally promotes self-awareness and pro-social behaviors, which are essential for a healthy society. Twitter’s secretive and uneven application around its "visibility filtering" tools compromised our social dynamics.
This was exacerbated by a governmental collaboration to suppress speech, especially when done in secret. The good news is that "The Twitter Files" have brought all of this to public awareness, which is the first step in returning to reality, open dialogue, and a healthier society.