When tweets become tantrums
CHICAGO Last Friday, when I thought it would finally be safe to wade back into my social media networks after three days full of gloating and/or whining about the result of the presidential election, something infuriating came up on my timeline.
It was a tweet precipitated by the video of President Obama’s teary thanks to campaign staff and volunteers. It suggested that if Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were to have a crying contest, Boehner would win because, to his political foes, he’s a big baby.
I tweeted that I’d no longer be following anyone who couldn’t show more class about who won and who lost the election than the average 11-year-old potty humor fan. Then I spent the rest of the morning worrying that even once the dust settled from Tuesday’s vote, the country would remain not only divided along partisan lines but bitter, petty and childishly intolerant of anyone with dissimilar political beliefs.
To those of you who don’t bother with Facebook or Twitter, I know what you’re thinking. But the answer is not to simply get off the social media merry-go-round. When it comes to day-to-day interactions, I truly enjoy the majority of the social media sphere. It’s only when national tragedies, important events or big political news stories break that these networks become hideous, angry monsters.
How this affects us—both online and off—is increasingly in need of research and perspective. Thank goodness, more people are noticing, studying and speaking out about this ever-more powerful communication method’s shortcomings.
Social media wrath is, unlike in mainstream media, a weird, bipartisan phenomenon. While the Right has Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and the Left adores Jon Stewart and MSNBC—the Pew Research Center recently crowned MSNBC as more partisan and negative, by far, than Fox News—everyone on social media networks seems to be ultra-biased and ticked off.
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, said recently on NPR’s “On the Media” that during the homestretch of the campaign, social media networks, and especially Twitter, were even more negative than cable shows and TV campaign ads. Worse, they were overwhelmingly negative toward both candidates regardless of whether real-life news events or mainstream media coverage changed the momentum of the campaign or not.
A few weeks before the election, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote a keen-eyed piece on how news narratives are increasingly shaped—and “winners and losers” determined—in near-real-time as journalists and members of the pundit class use social media, specifically Twitter, to weigh in on big national events such as the presidential debates.
His main observation was that: “Now everybody is operating off the same script and, except for a few ideological outliers, the product is homogenous.” In a new news world where social media is increasingly shaping what gets reported and how it’s played, this should make us shudder—and fear the real possibility that all media will eventually become as immature, reactionary and uninformed as the people who use Facebook and Twitter as the preferred vehicle to express hate toward their political enemies.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com.