Earlier this week, the president declared war on Twitter over their new (some might say long overdue) policy of fact-checking his tweets for accuracy and content. Two nights ago, after Mr. Trump admonished those in the street protesting the murder of George Floyd, Twitter flagged his tweet because it violated the company’s rule against “glorifying violence.”
In spite of his bluster, I suspect the president accomplished what I assume was his primary goal: to divert attention away from the rising number of people dying from the coronavirus, which currently stands at some 110,000. You do have to give the man credit: he certainly knows how to pivot us away from things he’d rather not discuss.
Where this will go from here is anyone’s guess. Twitter is a private company, and the extent to which the government can actually regulate content on such a platform is limited. But for me, it’s yet another reason why I’ve to shied away from heavy social media usage in recent years. When the noise becomes so distracting that it overtakes any pleasure in participating, that’s when you know the party is mostly over.
Perhaps like a fair number of you out there, I engaged in social media before there was even a name for it.
Prior to the invention of the graphical browser, I was using dial-up internet access in the early nineties to log into Usenet discussion boards about music, baseball, literature, and even one on librarianship. The displays were all text-based with background hues of black and green. Each board was most often organized in a hierarchical “tree-structure” sort of topic and date. Instead of search engines, we used something called “Gopher.” It was all rudimentary and uncomplicated, which suited us novices just fine.
I remember there was all kinds of inflammatory rhetoric tossed around like grenades on the most inane of propositions, i.e.: Bill Wyman was forced out of the Rolling Stones (not true), Tony Gwynn secretly took steroids (not true), J.D. Salinger wrote while visiting a nudist retreat (not true), and the “SuDocs” classification of government materials will be replaced in the next revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (just kill me now, please).
Abuse would fly on those boards back then; it was not a safe place for soft-hearted souls, but I eagerly engaged in those early online wars, holding my own against all various and sundry opponents. By the time the more modern web-based world of the Internet arrived, I decided enough was enough: I declared victory and handed in my boxing gloves. Or maybe I just turned 40. I don’t actually recall.
Like so many, I too joined Facebook in the 2000’s because it seemed like the fun thing to do. Who doesn’t love bright, shiny, new things?
I ended up suffering through the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections on that site, learning way too much about the political views of former classmates, friends, neighbors, and even family members. The last straw was the aftermath of Charlottesville in 2017, when I was horrified to read comments from people I knew well, who supported the proposition that there were “very fine people on both sides” protesting that day. The fat lady had sung, and I knew my time on Facebook had finally reached an end. I signed off for good shortly thereafter.
[Of course, I am remiss if I also didn’t mention that I reconnected with my lovely bride after 30+ years only after she found me on Facebook. So in spite of my misgivings, I will always be grateful for that little miracle. And for the record, she never trolled me once in our early interactions.]
I created a Twitter account after Trump took office. To paraphrase George Carlin, I wanted a front row seat to see civilization destroying itself. I don’t actually follow the president’s feed, but I end up seeing most of his tweets because so many people I do follow clap back at him. Just like the earlier Usenet boards, and just as I discovered with Facebook, Twitter is a endless cycle of reconstituted outrage, where last words are seemingly never achieved, and everyone is more clever than you’ll ever be. It’s high school all over again, except this time everyone gets to be the cool kid.
As I write this post, rioting and looting is taking place in several U.S. cities over the murder of Mr. Floyd. Although civic leaders and politicians are calling for calm, Mr. Trump himself parroted the words of a former Miami chief of police, who famously said about rioters in 1967: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The White House today offered the governor of Minnesota the use of active-duty soldiers and Pentagon intelligence to assist in quelling unrest there.
We seem to be at a tipping point here: we are still nervously fighting a pandemic, thousands are out of work, and racial tensions are boiling over in the streets. And if all of that wasn’t enough, we have 157 days till the next election. I’m no meteorologist, but I’m not predicting that rhetoric and vitriol will head into any kind of cooling trend soon. Things will only get hotter.
I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore. Words (and admittedly, deeds too at the moment) are tearing us apart.
As all of us have been saying to one another for the last few months: Be safe. It seems to fit in more than one context now.
Until next time…