About 14 months ago, I considered my New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Not normally a big believer in resolutions, I thought maybe one or two would be worthwhile. I’m a big believer in setting goals, from daily goals to annual to lifetime versions, so why not a resolution for a new year? That’s a goal, isn’t it?
So I decided I would avoid political discussions on social media.
You can already tell where this is going, can’t you?
The new town square.
It is said the era of electronic communication began with the transmission of the first telegram, way back in the mid-19th century, when American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse improved on inventions by earlier European scientists. On January 11, 1838, Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, sent a message over two miles of wire in New Jersey. Six years later he sent his famous message, “What hath God wrought,” over 44 miles of wire between the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to a train depot in Baltimore, Md. By 1851, Morse’s system, using the code he developed, was adopted by European countries, and by 1861 the telegraph connected the American coasts. For the first time in human history, long-distance, nearly instantaneous communication was possible. Before the coming of the telegraph, a letter mailed in London would take 12 days to reach New York, 73 days to get to Sydney, Australia. The problem of transmitting telegrams between points separated by water was solved in 1850 with the successful testing of the first undersea cable, connecting England and France. The first transatlantic cable was finished in 1866. It took another 36 years for the Pacific to be crossed.
Then came the telephone, an even more efficient means of communication. Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish immigrant, was granted a U.S. patent for the first telephone in 1876. In August of that year, Bell made the first long-distance call, over a 6-mile distance between two towns in Ontario, Canada. Within a year, the first building-to-building line was set up, connecting the workshop of Charles Williams Jr., in Boston, to his home in suburban Somerville. Williams’ two phones became Telephones 1 and 2 of the Bell Telephone Co. Service between New York City and Boston began in late 1884. Bell himself made the first transcontinental call on January 25, 1915, between his location in New York City and Thomas A. Watson in San Francisco. Four days later, my maternal grandmother was born on a farm outside Palmyra, Wis.
Radio came along early in the 20th century. First was wireless telegraphy, allowing Morse-code messages to be sent from point to point through the air. Then came voice, both for two-way communication and one-way broadcasting. The news and entertainment industries latched onto radio in a big way in the 1920s, a development that led directly to television. When TV first started muscling its electronic way into American society after World War II, forward-thinking folks started wondering when we would have two-way audio and video communication, just like we already had with the telephone and two-way radio? As usual, science fiction writers came up with the first versions, and the concept quickly made its way into popular media.
Communication gets personal…very personal.
In the days before television, “mass media” was defined as newspapers and magazines. In the first half of the 20th century, movies and radio started moving in, providing information but largely existing to give us entertainment. If you wanted to find out what was going on in your town, you had to read the town newspaper, if it had one, or maybe go down to City Hall to see what was posted on the community bulletin board. And then there was the town square.
Just about every town had a town square, usually a park (and usually square) in the middle of town. Around it or nearby you would find stately, important buildings, like City Hall, churches, maybe the police and fire stations. And within the town square there would be a bulletin board, where official business of the municipality could be posted: the minutes of the city council meeting, announcements of upcoming meetings and other events, and so forth. If you wanted to get informed, you had to make an effort: you had to actually go to the town square, but since it was downtown and everybody went downtown once in awhile, that was fine.
Occasionally the town square would be the scene of mass meetings. Celebrations, commemorative services for notable things like Memorial Day, maybe a meeting to hold a vigil if there had been a tragedy, like a house fire or other disaster that affected people in the town. And once in a great while there would be a meeting to protest something or other, a decision made by the city fathers or even one made at the state or national level. It might be spontaneous, in response to breaking news aired on the radio, but more likely it would be planned in advance. Flyers would be posted around town, advertising the event. There would be speakers and signs would be waved and there would be chanting and all kinds of carrying on. Maybe a lot of people would show up, maybe just a few. Some would go there just for the heck of it, or out of curiosity. Others would go because they truly cared about the subject matter and wanted to add their collective voice, even if all they did was to cheer, or boo, as the case may be.
Once in a great while, things would get out of hand, usually if people opposed to the subject matter happened to show up, and police would be called to settle things down. Only rarely would there be violence, at least in smaller towns. In bigger cities, that was another matter entirely.
But like so many things today, what was once literal has become virtual. In the town square of yore, people were generally reluctant to let things escalate. Mindful of being polite and tolerant of others’ opinions, as they’d been taught by their parents and in Sunday school, people might not like what was being said, but they would rarely go further in terms of a counter-protest than holding up a sign.
Those days are long gone. The virtual age, we were once told, would be one of almost unlimited potential for human advancement, thanks to the power of instant communication. Barriers would come down, understanding would be enhanced, common ground would be seized and built upon for the betterment of all. When my generation promised the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” it was to be a groovy era of peace and love, somehow built on things like passing out flowers and consuming copious quantities of narcotics. Nobody was really quite sure how it would happen, but we’d get there, man. We did, however, build the infrastructure that allowed the next generation to construct the internet. And when it comes to the new age of communication, the next generation has a very different idea about how to utilize the new age that the internet has given us.
The rise of the Twitter mob.
It didn’t take long for the internet to be mined for ways to create instantaneous communication. Anybody with a computer could do it, and there were soon multiple platforms upon which to voice one’s opinion about anything they wanted. “Social media” became a phrase that quickly dominated almost everything. Myspace was soon overpowered by Facebook, which was challenged by Google+. Facebook has won that war; Google+ is going dark this year. Then came something even faster and more ubiquitous: Twitter. Created in 2006, Twitter now has 335 million active users worldwide, about 5% of the population of the planet. Originally, a “tweet” was limited to 140 characters, which led to scrunched-up messages employing symbols and abbreviations that almost required a codebook to understand, but late in 2017 the character limit was doubled, allowing for more coherent postings, if the tweeter was so inclined. On Election Day 2016, Twitter was by far the most-used news platform, with 40 million election related tweets sent by 10pm ET.
It wasn’t long before the phrase “Twitter mob” joined the lexicon. That’s what happens when someone posts an opinion that draws impassioned and contrary responses from fellow tweeters. Every person on Twitter can garner followers, who see that person’s tweets when they’re posted, but you don’t have to be a fan of that person, or even know them personally, to be a follower. Not surprisingly, celebrities pull in the most followers. Pop singer Katy Perry is said to top the list with nearly 107 million, followed by another singer, Justin Bieber. Former president Barack Obama is third, just behind Bieber at 104 million. By comparison, President Trump has 53 million followers, ranking him 18th. Not surprisingly, Trump’s tweets, of which there are many, garner a lot of attention, often being mentioned on TV news programs at a rate far more frequent than those by his predecessor.
When a prominent person tweets something even remotely controversial, it doesn’t take long for the mob to form. News organizations will even report on tweeted reactions to certain events. You can see their quickie headlines posted on their sites: “(Famous person) said (something) and Twitter reacts.” Or, “Twitter goes crazy over (something).” It’s as if these news outlets think people honestly care about what other people think about something that has happened. Sometimes, it seems more coverage is given to the Twitter reaction than to the event or statement itself.
News organizations are in a tough spot these days. Newspaper subscriptions are drying up, and many have gone out of business. TV news viewership is down, when talking about actual “news” programs. Much of what we define as “news” these days is disseminated on cable networks on what the professionals call “opinion shows,” where their coverage of current events carries definite political slants. Astoundingly, many millennials say they get a lot of what they think is news from the monologues of late-night TV comics, who dive deeply into political commentary, often in scathing sarcasm that their more staid predecessors like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno would never approach. Traditional news organizations have found it almost impossible to present straight news, and confine their opinions to the actual opinion section. Even the bellwethers of TV news–ABC, CBS and NBC–present their nightly news shows with obvious political biases, although they’re not as obvious as what you’ll see on cable networks like CNN, FNC or MSNBC. It’s as if these news divisions understand that to survive, they’ll have to get with the program, and that means choosing which program to get with. Newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today have followed the trend; in these cases, the papers have shifted decidedly leftward in recent years. USA Today, which I used to buy every day, can’t even report on sporting events anymore without a giving the stories a political cast; its writers, two women in particular who shall remain nameless, never report on NFL doings without referring to things like the league’s alleged mistreatment of Colin Kaepernick, the outspoken quarterback cut by the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 and unsigned since (obviously boycotted for political reasons, say these reporters; ignored because he’s washed up as a player, say league insiders.)
Even when a well-spoken journalist offers a thoughtful, unbiased opinion about a topic, something can quickly be taken out of context and before you know it, things have gotten out of hand. This happened recently to Max Boot, a columnist for The Washington Post: On Wednesday, the Twitter mob came for me.
On Facebook, it’s not much different, although it’s not quite as widespread. You can post a comment about something, and it’s seen by your friends (although not by all of them; Facebook’s analytics are a dark mystery). Any of those friends can feel free to repost it, so theoretically it can spread quickly. I heard of a recent experiment by a law professor at a university in New York, or perhaps it was Boston. He came into his classroom one day, feigned being upset about something, and told his class of a couple dozen or so students that Chief Justice John Roberts had died. He hadn’t, of course; the prof was merely interested in seeing how far the rumor spread, and how quickly. Within a couple of hours he checked via Google and was astounded to find dozens of entries, trumpeting the rumor he himself had started. Of course that fire burned itself out quickly, but the point had been made. More than a few of his students had pulled out their phones–this prof was evidently one of those who doesn’t ban phones in class–and tweeted and/or posted the rumor, without bothering to run a simple check of legitimate news feeds to see if it was true.
But Facebook mobs exist, make no mistake about it, and they can be just as judgmental and vicious as Twitter mobs. This can be easily seen on any online newspaper’s comments section. Some, like The Washington Post, require registration with the newspaper to contribute comments, although anybody can read them. The online paper I subscribe to, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, switched their policy a few years ago to allow Facebook-linked posts. So, the reader who wishes to comment must first have a Facebook account. When they announced the change, the editors said each Facebook account must be legitimate, with at least five “friends.” But in the past couple years, I’ve noticed a lot of obviously-fake Facebook pages that readers are using to make comments, often insulting or at least snarky, with complete anonymity.
And, of course, what happened to Max Boot and so many others has happened to me. We are finally back to my New Year’s resolution for 2018. (Thanks for hanging in there!)
The day the mob came for me.
Everything went well for the first couple weeks of January. I kept an eye on my Facebook and Twitter accounts, but didn’t contribute anything remotely confrontational or controversial. Then one day a Facebook friend posted a statement about President Trump that was insulting and derogatory, as well as misleading. Not that I’m a big fan of the president–I didn’t vote for him, and I didn’t vote for his most prominent opponent either, so we’ll leave it at that–I felt compelled to set the record straight. My comment, couched in language I felt was very diplomatic, was immediately pounced upon by the original poster and some of his other “friends.” And the pouncing was done with language that was way over the top, which surprised and disappointed me, because I’ve known this individual for many years and we’re always quite cordial when we meet in person.
It didn’t take long for the always-present double standard of political conversation to rear its ugly head. One or two other mutual friends jumped in to lambaste me, and one other person who agreed with my viewpoint, for having the nerve to challenge the first post, even though my language wasn’t remotely derogatory or insulting. The original writer, though, and many of his followers, felt free to fling profanities my way. These went unchallenged by the ones who came after me for joining in.
Now, I could’ve just avoided the whole thing by ignoring the post, knowing as I did that this particular person is a notorious keyboard cowboy who talks big when he’s tapping on his computer in the privacy of his home, but in person it’s a different story. And thankfully so; if someone shouts at me and insults me online, I can just ignore it, but if he confronts me in public my reaction might not be so benign, and if shows up at my door and says it to my face, he’s going to be dealing with another type of reaction altogether.
But in this instance, I felt compelled to stand fast and not automatically yield the new, virtual town square to the guy with the bullhorn. Online bullies are like real bullies; they don’t like people to challenge them. They want to dominate everyone, as a way of showing how tough they are. And online, it’s even better, because they can get away with it there. In real life, a bully is eventually going to get popped by someone who’s had enough.
How to stand your ground online, though? Since you can’t end it with a love tap upside the head–which should be a last resort in a face-to-face showdown–you can take the high road. Counter the bully with reason and logic. They don’t like that, and to be honest, I’ve found that those whose political persuasion trends toward the liberal side are much more upset by that tactic than conservatives, perhaps because liberals tend to think they know everything. (This is what they often tell me, anyway.)
Our political landscape these days, thanks in large part to the omnipotent influence of social media and 24-hour cable “news,” is strewn with casualties from conflicts much like the one I found myself in that day on Facebook. Someone makes a statement, someone else takes it out of context and sends it flying through cyberspace, where it quickly gathers a life of its own, as Max Boot points out. The recent shabby treatment of those high school kids from Covington, Ky., is a perfect example. A whole host of people online were more than ready to jump to the wrong conclusion about those kids based on their preconceived political bias, and when evidence came in that strongly challenged that narrative, suddenly the first batch of shouters had moved on to something else.
A similar situation, virtually reversed, came along a few weeks later with the case of actor/singer Jussie Smollett, who claimed to have been assaulted in Chicago by thugs wearing clothing and shouting epithets that strongly suggested that they were supporters of Trump, ganging up on a helpless black man, and a gay black man to boot. Liberals across the country took to their phones to tweet their support for Smollett and their harsh condemnation of the attack, adding to their list of complaints against Trump for inspiring that kind of racist hatred. But within a few days, Smollett’s narrative began to fall apart, and the police ultimately wound up charging him with filing a false report. He had apparently staged the whole thing, paying a pair of acquaintances–both black men, as it turned out–to cuff him around a little bit. When they were tracked down and then confessed, it was all over for our man Jussie. Now, it appears he’s lost his job on the TV series Empire, and it remains to be seen if he will serve jail time and have any kind of career going forward.
But those initial supporters of Smollett quickly walked away from him when the facts started coming out. Some, like this writer, are now telling him he should get out in front of it and try to salvage what’s left of his reputation and career: What Jussie should do now.
The nature of social media and the infamous 24-hour news cycle make it easy for Twitter mobs to move on when they get tired of bashing someone, or it’s shown that the bashing was out of line to begin with. Something else will always happen, someone else will do something stupid that can have a political tone attached to it–everything is political these days, we’re constantly told–and so the mobsters never really have to repent. If a real mob would gang up on somebody in a real town square, police would intervene and a lot of the mobsters would find themselves behind bars. Not the online version, though. But maybe they’ll pay for it anyway; the teenager from Covington who was front and center of the Washington DC event that created the controversy is now suing prominent news outlets who played fast and loose with the facts immediately after the incident, sullying the boy’s reputation. What they boldly stated in print and online is quite likely going to wind up costing them a lot of money.
Bullies never back down until they are forced to pay a price. And finally, maybe, for the online bullies, that may be starting to happen.