Republican Congressman David Schweikert was on NPR this morning to discuss, among other things, the shooting that took place yesterday during a GOP baseball practice. He spoke of the toxicity in politics on both sides that grows out of social media these days, and he’s not wrong. I spend a good deal of my life on Twitter, and though I have managed to curate a pretty great and substantive Twitter feed, I still see it every day. It’s ugly. It’s toxic. It’s violent, and it is corrosive. Read the replies to any politician’s tweets, and you’ll feel terrible about the state of humanity. If I were a politician, I would never read my mentions.
It’s not just wackos and nutjobs, either. It’s everyone from Eggs with 25 followers to mid-level journos with 5,000 followers to political commentators with 50,000 followers. They tweet with purpose, and that purpose is to hurt. To inflict as much emotional pain as 140 characters will allow in the hopes that these politicians, or celebrities, or journalists will see those tweets and feel the pain meant to be inflicted.
But David Schweikert is wrong to think that this is new. It’s relatively new for the Republicans, but conservative social media has been at this for ten years, at least. Everything that’s been said about Trump has been said about Hillary, and about Obama, only with a few more choice words involving their gender or race. I’m not saying it’s right, but conservatives are just now beginning to feel what Hillary and Obama endured for years.
Frankly, given the level of vitriol online, I’m surprised that yesterday’s shooting was the first real-world violence we’ve seen with a politician since Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. Social media has created more intimacy between politicians and citizen, and that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing. Our politicians were once detached, statesman-like figures (think Tom Daschle, John Kerry) and now the imaginary barrier between politician and constituent has been erased. We can yell at our leader anytime we want on our phones while we’re sitting on the toilet.
Trump, of course, has played a large role in this. He’s been attacking Obama and Hillary on social media for a decade, and that’s emboldened his followers, which, in turn, has encouraged those on the left to match the rhetoric of the right. People on the left really do want to hurt Trump, and a lot of Republican Congresspeople, but a lot of that comes out of the frustration of their policies. Republicans want to pass a health care bill that will almost certainly leave thousands sick or dead (the CBO even took into account the number of people who will die under the AHCA to factor in the cost of premiums — guess what? They’re cheaper when sick people are dead.) The Republicans are rolling back civil rights protections, stripping away the right to an abortion, deporting thousands of people. Of course there’s going to be anger. These politicians aren’t just “passing laws,” they’re detrimentally affecting people’s lives.
It’s not an excuse to pick up a gun and go on a shooting spree. It’s not an excuse to encourage violence. But while I don’t traffic in it myself, I understand why some people would want to try with a tweet to emotionally hurt someone who is taking away their health care, especially when social media is practically the only outlet where anyone can be heard. I feel angry about it every day. It probably feels good for some people to let off some steam on Twitter, where we’re at least given the illusion that we’re being heard.
But then again, people on Twitter often direct the same death threats, caustic language, and violent rhetoric that they direct at politicians at movie critics who praise a movie like Wonder Woman or rag on a movie like Suicide Squad. Apparently, the stakes don’t have to be that high to deliver a death threat.
Indeed, unless you can curate your news feeds to weed out the nutjobs, social media is increasingly a very bad place to be, and there are days where you can feel the toxicity of it cling to you. Too much of it, and it can infect you, turn you into a nasty fucking person engaged in one pointless fight after another. That follows you even after you’ve put down your phone. It festers. You never want to find yourself saying to your child, “Delete your account,” at the breakfast table.
What’s the solution? Get rid of Twitter? Take away Donald Trump’s account? Verify everyone before they can use social media? Ban abusive accounts as liberally as we do? I don’t know, but if something is not done about it, and soon, we may see more tragedies like yesterday’s shooting. Or maybe one day we can elect a boring, competent President who we trust enough to ignore while she or he quietly runs the country. I, for one, miss the days when a tawdry Miley Cyrus performance on MTV could drive three news cycles.