Sam Rosenberg: United we stand, divided we tweet

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 - 5:55pm

Whatever happened to human decency?

Over these past few days — or should I say, months — Twitter has transformed from a simple, minimalist platform into an all-out, unfiltered reflection on our country’s social unrest.

After President Donald Trump enacted an executive order to ban refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, both Trump supporters and haters have engaged in an immersive online war over the recent commission, with Twitter being the main battleground and the endless supply of online resources serving as ammunition. Though, they had been feuding on the platform long before he was elected.

Thanks to the interconnected efficiency of the Internet, senators, celebrities and other social activists have reached out to users online, making a call to stand together as Americans in order to stop Trump’s hostile actions from continuing.

But how exactly can we unite as one when most of us still remain rigidly divided, especially on places like Twitter? How can we stand together when we blatantly label and dismiss people for speaking their minds?  

Both extreme sides of the political spectrum have found Twitter to be somewhat of a haven for expressing passionate thoughts on sociopolitical issues into 140 characters. Neither side, though, seems truly keen on breaking down barriers. Instead, each side will find ways to cite evidence to the other’s side wrongheaded claim, and attack the other side when they feel threatened.

For example, consistent conservatives on Twitter will call out progressive-minded people for being “triggered snowflakes,” while consistent liberals will identify those who support Trump and his policies as “racist” or “alt-right Nazis.” In each case, both sides are right in their intentions, but very flawed in their execution. The label “triggered snowflakes” is particularly distasteful because it mistakes a person’s outspokenness against unjust actions for being too sensitive and offended when faced with a contradictory opinion. At the same time, though, some people who often preach tolerance of others are themselves intolerant towards people who are intolerant (i.e. Andy Richter, Rob Delaney and Kurt Eichenwald).

The “alt-right” label is definitely applicable when it comes to online accounts that promote racism, White supremacy, hate speech and extremely right-wing views (i.e. Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer). But not every Trump supporter or conservative is aligned with the same views as the “alt-right,” and Twitter is mostly to blame for that. Censoring conservative voices, as racist and as bigoted as some may be, only furthers the divide between online users and any potential dialogue or legitimate nuanced criticisms.

Due to Twitter’s character limit, the concision of each tweet extracts the nuance from the issues discussed online and thus they become diluted into oversimplified jabs that lead to a never-ending virtual pissing contest. There are better, more appropriate ways to communicate our disagreements, but Twitter doesn’t allow for that kind of exchange. It almost belittles that notion.  

Someone from either group might argue, “Well, Sam, why should I show compassion to someone who stands for something I don’t, especially when that someone incessantly provokes people like me?” It’s a valid question.

People have the right to speak out against those who willingly deny factual evidence that contradicts their own opinions. But at the same time, it’s hypocritical to think that another person’s opinion is invalid, simply because their opinion is different from yours. No one is asking you to like this person or his or her personal ideology. If we are going to make progress in this unruly mess we have found ourselves in, we shouldn’t continue to generalize other groups and categorize them into a malicious “otherness,” simply because they don’t share the same views. In the grand scheme of things, we are all “others.”

There are also internal factors at work that play into the much larger, more nuanced narrative of social media, particularly in the level of education, media consumption and media literacy of a Twitter user. Based on those factors, some are more privileged than others when it comes to making certain arguments. People who make ignorant comments about social or political issues might just be oblivious to how they will affect them. We shouldn’t be making fun of them by screenshotting their ignorant tweet, but instead building a bridge by offering them support.

Facebook also suffers from a similar problem, but to an even greater extent; that platform allows for users to launch into page-long rants. Though some politically laden Facebook posts have the ability to incorporate the nuance that Twitter lacks, it incites even greater conflict between users, leading to trails of defensive, paragraph-long comments.

Is social media a place that people can feel safe in engaging with others who share similar political beliefs? Yes, to an extent. Can it be used to be outspoken about particular issues, especially if it’s well-balanced and for the greater good of humanity? Sure. Can it motivate people to take action when necessary? Absolutely. It certainly helped spread news about the recent protests at national airports against Trump’s ban.

But is social media the most useful, productive space for political discourse? Definitely not. Because we have the tendency to subscribe to news sources that align with our own views, it is practically impossible for people to listen to other opinions when we thrive in an online echo chamber. There are too many examples of Twitter and Facebook threads that showcase the absurdity of the negative energy being wasted on making an argument.

This kind of incessant fighting on social media is nothing new. Trolls on both sides of the political spectrum have shown time and time again their disdain for the other side. But trolling won’t help us get to where we need to be.

It is hard to stand together as a people when we still can’t seem to get along even online. In this age of mistrust and misinformation, Internet users have become so consumed with labeling, chastising, denouncing and shunning that many of us have lost the will to examine and discuss the complexity of important social issues in civilized settings. We need to stop thinking in this polarized, collective black-and-white mindset of “us vs. them,” “liberal vs. conservative,” “left-wing vs. right-wing,” “Democrat vs. Republican” and “pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump.” I realize I may be preaching to the choir, but this cannot be said enough. If you really want to see change and unity, start reading publications from other websites that offer alternative views. Or even better, get off the Web and start engaging in a dialogue with people who challenge and disagree with you. That way, we might find a space to actually unite together as one nation.