This past week, there was a little drama in the race for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Sheridan Lund, the precinct chair of the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County and candidate for the congressional seat, tweeted a now-deleted attack on one of the candidates. The charge being leveled was that Victor Reyes, a former top aide to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and one of the candidates for the congressional seat, was only pretending to be a person of color. Reyes is a second-generation Mexican-American. Many of the other candidates running for Congress in this district released statements condemning the attack. What interested me is that at the time that the offending tweet was deleted, it only had about two likes and two negative quote tweets.
My recent tweet about Fortnite skins got more likes than these poorly thought-out musings on colorism. By responding to Lund’s message, every candidate in the race was able to accrue some political capital and establish themselves as the candidate of racial justice. But they shouldn’t have responded.
This falls in with a trend with which I’ve taken issue recently: treating certain social media posts as much more influential than they actually are.
Media literacy is important and constantly evolving. Today I am offering an additional digital rule of thumb: Don’t engage with posts that don’t have traction (likes, shares, etc.). If a post doesn’t have engagement, that is the internet’s way of telling you that no one really found the post to be compelling, so you won’t actually be swaying any opinions by condemning it. Actors on the digital landscape, no matter how large or small the audience, have a responsibility to only respond to a piece of media they disagree with if it has an actual audience. Otherwise, they aren’t countering the sway of the original idea.
On the contrary, they are amplifying it to their audience who wouldn’t have been exposed to it in the first place. Those who devote themselves to criticizing irrelevant posts that gained no traction on the merits of the idea presented are distorting the narrative — and doing a disservice to themselves and their audience in the process.
Highlighting the fringe is how many figures of the online political influencer class make their livings. Ben Shapiro, probably the most influential conservative online pundit, recently released a YouTube video entitled “Leftists OUTRAGED Over Bill Burr Jokes at 2021 Grammys.” The premise of the video is that there are currently swathes of rabid Democrats who want to take your comedy away from you, a premise engineered to infuriate his audience. This simply wasn’t true.
If you looked on Twitter, where the outrage was allegedly coming from, a couple of negative posts had gained a few hundred likes. But it seemed for every negative tweet about Bill Burr with five or ten likes, there were scores of people absolutely indignant that people could be so sensitive, all producing the same ten offending Tweets as evidence for a larger cultural sickness.
So what should people respond to on the internet? I would offer a couple of criteria for a post to be considered worthy of a response. First, how much traction did this idea actually get? If Joe Schmoe posts on Facebook that we should put the Social Security Trust Fund into Bitcoin, and the post receives two likes and one “Interesting!” comment from his second-grade teacher, I am confident that the national narrative would not benefit from a prominent account screenshotting it, posting to their thousands of followers, and doing the 21st century equivalent of eviscerating the person on a daytime talk show.
However, if Joe Schmoe’s post somehow manages to gain traction, then it might be worth engaging. On the other hand, if Ezra Klein, a New York Times columnist, tweets that we should put the Social Security Trust Fund into Bitcoin, regardless of how much or how little engagement the post gets, this thought is relevant and merits a response. Overall, you should respond if the thinker is prominent or if the reach of their thought was large.
These criteria apply less and less the closer the person is to you. I still want to empower you to get into Facebook arguments with your cousins about what time of year is best for seeing geese, because that person actually has a huge audience relative to your life — you and everyone close to you are the intended audiences. In a lot of ways, the internet is not necessarily a public forum. It is the Diag. You aren’t there to speak about and listen to a specific topic, you are there to do your own thing. If someone is shouting at the top of their lungs from one of those benches in front of Hatcher Graduate Library, you and everyone else would probably walk right by them. But if you see a crowd of a thousand listening to some weirdo’s ideas about the Federal Reserve, you have much more of a desire to comment.
On the internet, we perceive things to be much more oriented at us than we do in real life. The phenomenon I am talking about is based much more on remoteness. If Facebook arguments with relatives are hand-to-hand combat, I am preaching against snipers: rummaging through the internet for the sole purpose of becoming enraged, finding the worst articulation of the offending concept, and pulling the trigger.
Let’s circle back to the tweet that caused all my strife in the NM-1 congressional race. What should the candidates have done? I don’t want to sound too much like a kindergarten teacher, but ignoring it is often the best policy. Platforming the fringe is a poor decision. If an idea isn’t held by a significant number of people, it isn’t important enough to bring to the attention of your audience, or even worth your time.
I know it’s almost all I write about these days, but this phenomenon contributes to political polarization. Picking the least articulate, least important post which was unable to gain any traction on the merits of its ideas, and magnifying it — responding to it as if it’s something greater — causes audiences to perceive society as a split between themselves and those who formulated the odd ideas in question. And that is rarely an accurate map of the populace. There is a genre of accounts that will find a post with not much traction, expressing the least developed version of an idea, and compile it with thousands of others with the goal of proving how much better X or Y ideology is than the other.
Ignoring fringe posts won’t solve much. It won’t dismantle polarization, bigotry or online rudeness, but it will avoid unnecessarily elevating an idea no one listened to in the first place. It’s also a way to practice some self-respect. Often the only way we can interpret social media is as a direct message to us, and one which needs a response. Thinking of the internet as the Diag instead of a conversation or a forum can help you escape this mindset. People aren’t talking to you, they’re preaching into the air. It isn’t your responsibility to counter every silly thing someone says from their digital soapbox, but if other people start engaging with the idea, then you have the right to add your own commentary about the original post. With these criteria for social media non-confrontation, you can become a beacon of restraint in the digital age.
Julian Barnard can be reached at email@example.com.