Only Cowards Don’t Get Ratioed

If everyone always agrees with you, you’re doing it wrong.

A hand hold a phone with the twitter logo on the screen in blue and white.
Mike Blake / Reuters

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.

Students throughout the ages have suffered long nights of the soul as they revisit their exams. The answer was B, they think, breaking out into a cold sweat, not C! Most writers are well beyond the stage when they have nightmares about school. Instead, they now startle awake at night fearing that the tweet they sent before going to bed will be “ratioed” by the morning.

The term ratio will puzzle anyone who does not spend an inordinate share of their time on social media, and any attempt at an explanation is rendered difficult by the fact that there is no general agreement about which tweets qualify as having suffered this fate. But though a consensus about what philosophers would call the “necessary” conditions of being ratioed remains elusive, the “sufficient” conditions are largely beyond dispute: If a tweet elicits far more hostile replies than likes or retweets—meaning that there is a high ratio between criticism and approbation—it has been duly ratioed.

The other thing the non-initiated need to know is that, among the extremely online, getting ratioed is considered an unambiguous sign of moral and intellectual failure: Only somebody who has committed a grave factual or normative error, so the assumption goes, could compose a tweet that is collectively disowned by hundreds or even thousands of strangers on the internet.

There can be something empowering, and even aesthetically pleasing, about the instant accountability meted out on social media. Who among us has not beamed with schadenfreude when a politician we loathe—or an inconsequential figure who has attracted our wrath for reasons principled or petty—has suffered his 15 minutes of public humiliation?  Many a ratioed tweet is simply inane. And certainly widespread disapprobation is warranted in response to, say, hatred or bigotry, evident lies or obfuscations, and attempts to bully the weak.

But though I am hardly immune to the joys of a deserved ratio, I am worried about the kinds of incentives we put in place—and the kind of public culture we are creating—by equating the expression of unpopular opinion with failure.

Unless we believe ourselves to be the first generation in history to have discovered all of the correct opinions, we must stay alive to the possibility that plenty of arguments that are deeply unpopular today deserve to be aired—and perhaps even believed.

Seen from this angle, the ratioed tweet—or, for that matter, the widely panned op-ed—can claim a proud inheritance: that of the banned book, of the argument made before its time. If Socrates or Jesus or Copernicus had been able (and sufficiently imprudent) to tweet out their opinions, their contemporaries would almost certainly have administered a ratio. So it is possible that at least a small share of the tweets that are ratioed today express opinions we shall one day come to see as gospel.

Conversely, all those social-media users who never get ratioed should consider the possibility that they have nothing to brag about: They daily demonstrate a remarkable ability to move with the crowd. Perhaps they genuinely hold the same views as a majority of their followers at all times. Or perhaps they merely combine a strong sense of the way the wind is blowing with a consistent willingness to censor themselves whenever their opinions are less than fashionable. But does any writer whose talents are limited to synthesizing conventional wisdom deserve our admiration? And should we trust any politician—or, for that matter, any social-media personality—who has the determination and self-discipline to hide from view any thought that might prove unpopular?

A ratioed tweet is not an automatic indication of a serious failing that should make us doubt the author’s judgment; it might just be a mark of courage and integrity. Instead of quickly making fun of anybody who has suffered the misfortune of getting ratioed, we should wonder, instead, if we should applaud their willingness to take a metaphorical beating for sharing their convictions. If we want to have meaningful debates, online or off, it is incumbent on all of us to exonerate the ratioed tweet—or at least to pause before we condemn its author.

As a first step toward this end, readers might consider posting this celebration of the ratioed tweet underneath the most worthy examples of the genre. In a second step, some intrepid entrepreneur might even award an annual prize to the most thought-provoking tweet that has been thoroughly ratioed. Eventually, we might even succeed in flipping the script altogether: Perhaps we should collectively shame anybody who never dares to share an unpopular opinion?

Call it the “ratio ratio,” a numerical measure that indicates what percentage of a person’s tweets have been ratioed. If a writer’s or a politician’s ratio ratio falls too low—less than one in 50, say—this might come to be seen as a humiliating indication that they are devoid of honesty or originality.